Ordination and Embodiment, Part 3
By Fr. Mark Perkins
Editor’s Note: In this four-part series, Fr. Mark Perkins evaluates the debate around women’s ordination in conversation with William G. Witt’s Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination (Baylor UP, 2020). Unless otherwise specified, parenthetical citations refer to Witt’s book and biblical citations to the Authorized Version.
Part 3: Jesus Christ, The Apostles, and Ordination
Having shown how positive arguments for women’s ordination fail on historical and ecclesiological grounds, and having presented a biblical picture of male-female difference as mutual and non-interchangeable interdependence, we must now ask whether and how this difference applies to ordination.
The signs, symbols, and sacraments given to us in Scripture are rarely self-evident. We would not, for instance, have intuited that bread symbolizes (and can become) the very Body of our Incarnate God. As Alexander Wilgus shows in his excellent essay on ordination, when Scripture gives us symbols, our duty as faithful sons and daughters of the Church is not to interrogate the symbols — not to complain that the Eucharistic requirement for bread rather than, say, cauliflower is arbitrary or to try to change the symbol on that account — but rather to accept what we are given and to reason from and through these given images (Wilgus 111-117).
In my final essay I will reason from and through the maleness of the priesthood towards a tentative theology of sex difference in the Church. Our present task, however, is to accept what we are in fact given in Scripture.
Sex Difference and Ordination
My last essay rejected both the wooden complementarianism of Wayne Grudem and Bill Witt’s flattening of sex difference into near meaninglessness. I particularly emphasized how the man and the woman in Genesis have shared tasks — tasks which they must accomplish through a mutual interdependence flowing from genuine difference. Likewise, in Ephesians 5 the husband and wife share in a Christian community characterized by submission and self-sacrifice — yet we find that they do so in distinct ways.
Readers of that essay may have intuited that some forms of male-female differentiation are absolute and others are not. There is no overlap in the basic biological means by which men and women fruitfully multiply. Though both are called to nurture and care for children, men cannot get pregnant, cannot give birth, and cannot nurse babies — and this is true without qualification. As far as the other created task of subduing the earth goes, all cultures reflect some basic division of labor between the sexes, and Genesis 1-3 implies that sex-differentiated labor reflects God’s created purposes. This does not mean that any given cultural instantiation of sex difference carries with it divine endorsement, nor that particular social constructions are absolute and unchanging. Even in those cultures with fairly rigid divisions between the sexes, there is always some interpenetration in tasks. In a preindustrial agrarian society, for instance, men do not go off to work while women stay home. Rather, both men and women stay home — the fields being an extension of the homestead — and both men and women work.
Likewise, in Christian marriage, husbands are particularly but not uniquely called to self-sacrifice and wives to submission. These are not mutually exclusive callings. In the Church, men will submit and women will sacrifice themselves. Nevertheless, St. Paul suggests that there is something particularly fitting in a husband’s self-sacrifice and a wife’s submission (which, as I emphasized, is not passive obedience). In Ephesians 5, the explicit rationale for this distinction is symbolic. The ultimate meaning of marriage — the archetype to which human marriage corresponds and of which it is a shadow — is Christ’s relation to the Church. And in the symbolic world in which marriage reflects God’s relation to his people — again, this being the final purpose for which marriage was instituted — the husband and wife are images of Christ and his Church respectively and non-interchangeably. Iconographically, we cannot reverse St. Paul, asking the wife to represent Christ and the husband the Church in marriage. (As I will clarify in the final essay, this distinction is specific to the marriage relation — it is not the case that men in general reflect Christ while women in general reflect the Church.)
The Bible clearly associates the priesthood with males, but we must ask whether this association is absolute (as in the distinction between mothers and fathers) or general (as in agrarian labor divisions). Perhaps the male character of the biblical priesthood is permeable or culturally constructed (and therefore at least somewhat malleable).
Popular explanations for male-only ordination sometimes involve generalizations that, even if true, would not be a warrant for the absolute restriction of ordination to men. We are sometimes told, for instance, that men are more rational than women, or that, naturally and on the whole, they are more capable leaders. Even if this were true — and I am not granting it, except for the sake of argument — such general differences would hardly be worth our attention. Even if we were to grant that 999 out of the thousand best leaders in any given community were men — a premise I do not accept — even then that would, at most, suggest that not very many women should be ordained. It would provide almost no guidance at all in answering whether this man or that woman would make a good leader.
Imagine I had to choose either a man or a woman to help me move heavy furniture. If I knew nothing of the two but their sex, it would make statistical sense to choose the man, given that men are on average stronger than women. But this is not how life works. If I decided that broad generalities about the average musculature of men and women meant that I must choose this particular comatose man over that particular powerlifting woman, I would be an idiot. Anecdotally — all that is needed is a single anecdote to overturn an absolute ban — I can say that the most competent boss I had in my nine-year teaching career was a woman. If we are to justify sex-restricted ordination, we cannot do so from general claims about rationality and leadership qualities, even were they better founded than they are.
When it comes to ordination, the Bible does not deal in generalities. Rather, it presents the male priesthood as an absolute — an interpretation which the reception history of the Church confirms. To begin showing how this is so, we must turn to the Gospels, where we will once again see that neither Witt nor the complementarians have given us the best way to understand the biblical data.
Jesus and His Apostolic Church
On the whole, Witt’s treatment of the Gospels in his “Protestant Arguments” section is stronger than his mixed analysis of Genesis and St. Paul — but also rather irrelevant for Catholics (and naturally so, given its placement within Witt’s broader argument). Witt shows how Jesus both embodies and challenges his culture in ways that defy easy categorization. For instance, Jesus reorients and reorders the family to its proper end and meaning in the kingdom of heaven. In doing so he “subverts” false understandings of kinship loyalty, while never undermining the family as such (84-85). Moreover, Witt rightly argues that the ritual purity laws of the Old Testament — which particularly though not exclusively limited women — are consummated in Jesus and thereby made irrelevant (88-89). Ritual purity existed to set the Jews apart, but, reading backwards, we can see them as an anticipation pointing forward to Christ, who restored the blind and the lame, who healed the woman with the issue of blood — who purifies all that he touches. And while Witt overstates the ecclesiological implications of women being honored among Christ’s disciples and followers, we should not miss how Jesus transgressed the cultural boundaries that excluded women from social-cultural spaces and how empowering Jesus’ treatment of women really was (87-89; see also Cortez 203-211; Witt ably deals with the most troubling passage in this respect — Jesus implicitly referring to the Syrophoenician woman as a “dog” , though his argument would be stronger still if he read the interaction as a parable). Put simply, Jesus Christ cannot be accused of misogyny or of failing to honor women.
All of this is indeed quite relevant to complementarianism in the vein of Wayne Grudem, given Grudem’s general failure to distinguish between those male-female differences in Scripture which are general and those which are absolute — and, as a consequence, his rather elaborate (one might even say pharisaical, in the popular sense of the term) set of rules and regulations defining precisely when women infringe upon male authority. But it does not have much to say regarding Catholic, sacramental objections to the ordination of women.
Witt’s reading of the Gospels in the “Catholic Arguments” section of his book leaves much to be desired. As we will see, he attempts to seal off the apostles and the Old Testament priesthood from the Church. His argument relegates both to historical trivia — part of the Church’s backstory but not part of the Church at present. By contrast, the undivided Church of the first millennium — as well as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches for the next thousand years and up to the present — saw the Church’s three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon as continuing the apostolic office and consummating the Old Testament priesthood.
Our Lord called and empowered a male-only apostolate. (Witt’s declaration that “Jesus did not ordain anyone”  begs the question, since it depends upon Witt’s historical and ecclesiological premises. Within Catholic theology, Christ’s words and actions in John 21 strongly correspond to ordination [see Bergsma 95, 117-20].) Witt, however, suggests that the composition of the twelve apostles simply mirrors the precedent of the twelve patriarchs — their number, their maleness, and their Jewishness are governed by their relation to the pattern established in Genesis (91, 265). But Witt’s own narrative of Christ’s radicalism casts doubt on this staid and bland interpretation. For one thing, if Jesus intended to inaugurate a total egalitarianism in his Church, he surely would not have balked at reorienting the patriarchal symbolism he received from the Old Testament in order to include women. Further, contra Witt, the apostolic office is not simply a symbolic role that existed during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Rather, it will persist in the eschaton: the twelve apostles, Christ says, will “sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk. 22:30; we will have more to say about authority in the next essay).
Witt, in other words, has the symbolic order backwards. Though in chronological history the twelve patriarchs come first, the twelve apostles are in fact the archetype. Viewed theologically and eschatologically, the apostles come first, for it is they and not the Old Testament patriarchs who will sit on thrones in the eschaton. The patriarchs, it turns out, anticipated the apostles, rather than the apostles reflecting the patriarchs — the number and attributes of the patriarchs typologically foreshadow the apostolic Church, and not the other way around. Even if one were to grant Witt’s argument, his gesture towards the Old Testament model resolves nothing. It simply pushes the problem back in time. If the Old Testament is God-breathed, and if the God of Israel is indeed the Triune God of Christian faith, then we must ask why God chose twelve male patriarchs in the first place. Unless I missed it, Witt not once considers that question.
Witt’s assumption that the apostolic office of the Twelve ceased with their deaths (267) is not borne out by the record of Scripture or the witness of the Church. While the twelve apostles did have a particular symbolic role vis a vis Israel, they were not the only ones commissioned as apostles. St. Paul incessantly insists upon the validity and equality of his own apostleship, received at the hands of Jesus. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic biblical scholar John Bergsma shows how the Pastoral Epistles present Timothy and Titus as men empowered by the laying on of St. Paul’s hands to exercise the same authority as St. Paul himself (Bergsma 120-123). While the Pastoral Epistles emphasize the specific episcopal prerogatives of ordination and oversight, Anglican theologian E. L. Mascall notes that the bishop’s historic duty to preserve and transmit “the Church’s tradition without distortion” corresponds directly to the apostles’ role as “eye-witnesses to the earthly life of Jesus” (Mascall 213).
Oversight and eyewitness both play a role in the election of St. Matthias to Judas’ apostolic “office” (Acts 1:20, ESV), which election Bergsma says “is really the beginning of what we call apostolic succession” (Bergsma 118; the Authorized Version translates episkope here not as “office” but “bishoprick”). The central qualification for St. Matthias’s candidacy was that he had been with the disciples from the beginning and was a witness of the Resurrection (though this is in fact the second listed qualification; the first was that he be male, aner — see Acts 1:21-22; Jaroslav Pelikan 46-47, 206; Joseph Fitzmyer 226). Adding Matthias to the apostles anticipates the looming Pentecostal confrontation between true Israel, represented by the Twelve, and ethnic Israel — “Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) — but it also ensures that the twelfth throne in the kingdom of heaven (Lk. 22:30) will not be empty. Though the New Testament tells us nothing more about St. Matthias, he presumably went on to exercise authority in the early Church and will rule in the eschaton.
It is true that the apostles’ later successors do not retain the title of “apostle,” but the Church has long considered bishops to hold apostolic office. This correspondence between apostle and bishop is implicit already in the New Testament and becomes explicit no later than the second century, when St. Irenaeus responded to heretics by affirming the episcopal commission to the apostolic office of shepherding and faithful witness (Bettenson 122-123; while Ireneaus dealt with gnostics in particular, his general reasoning applies to our topic as well — if there had been a biblical mandate for women’s ordination, who would have been privy to such knowledge other than the bishops, who were given the apostolic mantle of witness and oversight at the hands of the apostles themselves?).
Witt’s attempt to relocate the problem of the male apostolate to the Old Testament (rather than resolving it) is mirrored in his treatment of Jesus’ own embodied sex. Witt notes that Christ’s maleness is “fitting,” since “only a male Savior could challenge and defeat Mediterranean honor culture” by voluntarily becoming the suffering servant (262). His more significant explanation, however, flows from the male typology of the Old Testament. According to Witt, “the maleness of Jesus Christ allows for typological continuity” since in his “three offices of prophet, priest, and king,” he “fulfills the pattern of… Moses, Aaron (or Melchizedek), and David” (262-263). Once again, though, we must ask why these Old Testament types are so unrelentingly male in the first place — and we must do so without pitting an egalitarian Jesus against the misogynistic God of the Old Testament. More importantly, as Bergsma shows, Jesus commissions his own apostles to carry on precisely these three offices (Bergsma 19-20, 51, 61-62). Whatever was typologically fitting for Jesus, then, must be typologically fitting for his apostles — and for their episcopal successors.
If we are to accept our Lord’s words, the Twelve apostles will serve a particular ruling function in the life of the world to come. And if we accept the Church’s witness on this subject in the New Testament and beyond, then they were also the first of many who would serve in the apostolic office down the ages. Thus, our Lord’s failure to include women suggests either that he did not anticipate the apostolic office of bishops or that he did not mind leaving his Church with misleading data about that office — or that he intended for it to be male.
The Bible’s Exclusively Male Priesthood
Relocating rather than resolving patterns of maleness in Scripture constitutes the besetting sin of Witt’s treatment of “Catholic Arguments.” Alongside the apostles and Jesus himself, we find the same error with regard to the Levitical priesthood. Witt argues that there was nothing about maleness per se that was fitting for the priesthood, but that it was simply a necessary corollary of the Old Testament purity laws related to menstruation, which made it impractical for women to serve in the Temple (180). There is no biblical evidence connecting male-only Temple service to the ritual purity laws — but then there is no explanation given at all for the male requirement, so all interpretations require speculation. Still, Witt’s explanation is unconvincing. For one thing, the predictable rhythm of ritual impurity would hardly form an insurmountable barrier to female priestly service, and Israel had ample models of female priesthood in surrounding cultures. Even putting aside these points, gesturing towards ritual purity laws does not solve the problem but — once again — only relocates it, given that God is source and author of both the male Levitical priesthood and the ritual purity laws — and, as Matthew Colvin points out, the female body itself.
Witt further assumes that the male-only Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament has no connection to the Church’s priesthood. In fact, Witt claims that the New Testament does not present us with a Christian priesthood at all, apart from Jesus himself and the royal priesthood of all believers (195-198). Aside from the dubiousness of the claim itself — see John Bergsma’s previously cited Jesus and The Old Testament Roots of the Priesthood — Witt’s argument calls attention to the true stakes of the women’s ordination debate. He perfectly illustrates what Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware predicted in 1978: those who ordain women are not “creating women priests, but dispensing with priesthood altogether” (Ware 1983, 27; Ware famously changed his mind later).
Still, opponents of women’s ordination cannot assume that the male character of the Jewish priesthood automatically obtains in the New Covenant — but not the restriction of that office to the tribe of Levi. As it turns out, though, the Bible gives us a priesthood that is male without exception but not universally Levitical or even Jewish. Prior to the emergence of the Levitical priesthood in Exodus 32, all of the firstborn males in Israel acted as priests (see Bergsma 55-57). More importantly, Christian priesthood — though rooted in and anticipated by the Levitical priesthood — is not ultimately derived from Aaron but is that of Christ, who is “a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 7:17, cf. Ps. 110:4). Witt superficially considers Melchizedek but fails to note that King David and Solomon also exercised Melchidezek’s priesthood (194, 196). Of course, Psalm 110:4 is ultimately about Jesus Christ, but its literal-historical referent is first David and then Solomon, both of whom act in priestly roles on various occasions. (David eats the Bread of the Presence [1 Sam. 21:6] and wears the linen ephod before the ark [2 Sam. 6:14; see Pitre 135-138]. Solomon prays before the altar at the dedication of the Temple in ways that anticipate the Church’s priesthood. He celebrates ad orientem in orans position, turning only to bless the people [1 Kgs. 8]. Solomon also mirrors Adam, whose own priesthood predates Israel.) It is into this non-Levitical priesthood that Christ anoints his apostles, and into which they consecrated their successors (Bergsma 102-104, 133-134).
Israel and the Church always had the female priesthood as a nearby cultural possibility. Women priests were never unthinkable for Israel’s neighbors, even though they were preindustrial agrarian societies just like Israel. Hence, there is no particular reason a female priesthood would have been unthinkable for Israel, aside from Witt’s rather lame gesture towards purity laws. That ritual purity explanation, moreover, only emphasizes the Church’s male-only priesthood. Already in the New Testament those ritual purity laws, which supposedly foreclosed the Levitical priesthood to women, were deemed irrelevant. Likewise, the New Testament opened up new space for celibacy, in light of the understanding of Christian participation in the truest marriage — that of Christ and his Church. (In addition to St. Paul’s elevation of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9, Jesus’s self-made “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” [Matt. 19:12] are best understood as voluntary celibates [DeFranza 70-83].) The hints of consecrated virgins and widows in the New Testament (1 Cor. 7; 1 Tim. 5) suggest that at least some women took up this role. In doing so, they would have removed themselves from the socioeconomic burdens of childbearing and agrarian labor. Thus, neither purity laws nor the limitations of agrarian society would have prevented women from entering the Church’s priesthood. And yet the maximal case for women’s ordination in the Church rests on a word ending here and a disputed clause there. By contrast, the evidence for an exclusively male priesthood throughout the Bible and the Church’s history is overwhelming.
We are left to wonder why the Church utterly failed to discern a biblical egalitarianism that, Witt claims, was always present but never seen. Advocates for women’s ordination have yet to produce a plausible historical explanation for how this purportedly egalitarian New Testament became an early Church that excluded women from ordained ministry. They must suppose that Jesus and St. Paul tossed the reasons for male-only ordination overboard and opened the way for women to serve in exactly the same capacity as men — but that either this opening was slammed shut immediately after the closing of the New Testament without any hint of debate or protest in the historical record, or that there was at some point a remarkably successful Da-Vinci-Code-style conspiracy to suppress the record. Alternatively, we could accept that male-only ordination in the Scriptures is rooted more deeply than ephemeral ritual purity laws or agrarian socio-economics.
We have seen the priestly role taken up in Scripture by Adam, by Aaron, by all firstborn males in Israel, by the Levitical priesthood, by Melchizedek, by David, by Solomon, and by Jesus himself. We could add to that list Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (see Bergsma 29-47). Moreover, the apostolic office given to the Twelve in the Gospels was anticipated by the twelve patriarchs of Israel and was handed on to their successors in the episcopacy, which office remained exclusively male for the next two thousand years.
And as we have seen, all of Witt’s explanations for biblical patterns of maleness end with the arbitrary. Why twelve male apostles? To represent twelve male patriarchs. But why were all of the patriarchs male? Witt does not say. Why was the Levitical priesthood universally male? Well, because the ritual purity laws would have often excluded women. Aside from the fact that “often” does not mean “always,” why did God institute these ritual purity laws in the first place, such that women were excluded? Witt does not say. Why were those who exercised the priesthood of Melchizedek prior to Christ — specifically David and Solomon — male? Witt does not say. Christ’s own maleness? Fitting but irrelevant to ordination.
Taken in isolation, each of these explanations has some degree of plausibility. Considered cumulatively, the argument becomes rather absurd. We must hold that masculinity per se is irrelevant, and that in each individual instance the apparent significance of maleness is really attributable to some other factor. In Witt’s telling, none of these factors are inherently related. Ritual purity laws; patriarchal symbolism; the offices of prophet, priest, and king; the socio-economics of agrarian life — for Witt, the fact that all of these disparate factors happen to point in the same direction is meaningless.
Even if, in spite of all the data, we retained some doubt that maleness is significant for the priesthood, then, as Wilgus argues, the orthodox method of reasoning would push us to examine the Church’s reception of this data in her own priesthood (Wilgus 111-117). The Church’s practice confirms our biblical intuitions: the priesthood is inherently and unexceptionally male.
We cannot avoid the obvious. Either we serve a God who wished to include women in the priesthood but was extraordinarily dense in communicating that to us, or God did not intend for women to exercise priestly office.
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As previously noted, Witt begins his section on Catholic arguments with an odd and ironic sidetrack, falsely accusing all who use “priestess” language of making insinuations of sexual immorality. His narrative of how the widely disseminated legend of cult prostitution originated and spread is diverting in both senses of the word: it is interesting, and it is a distraction. The main point of “priestess” language — the one C. S. Lewis himself explicitly develops throughout his essay on the topic — has nothing to do with the supposed moral laxity of pagan priestesses but rather with their paganism. In clear and dramatic contradistinction to surrounding cultures from the time of Moses on through to the history of the Church, the people of God have only ever ordained male priests. And regardless of what one thinks about why that is, it is quite clear that it is. Our duty, then, is to reason from what we are given rather than to seek to overthrow it.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.