Ordination and Embodiment: Part 2
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 1: Clearing Ground
Part 2: Sex Difference in Genesis and St. Paul
Part 3: Jesus Christ, The Apostles, and Ordination
Part 4: Sacrificial Masculinity and the Priesthood
Part 2: Sex Difference in Genesis and St. Paul
I concluded the last essay by suggesting that Witt’s book could help us develop a compelling vision for human flourishing as embodied, sexual creatures — so long as we reject all of his premises and conclusions. That may seem like the faintest of praise, but it really is creditable that a book so fatally flawed from the outset as Icons of Christ nevertheless proves a valuable conversation partner.
My first essay dealt with historical and ecclesiological questions and the third and fourth ones will put forward a positive case for ordination by engaging Witt’s “Catholic Arguments.” This second essay focuses on his general treatment of sex difference primarily in the “Protestant Arguments” section of his book, attempting to salvage from Witt’s biblical analysis that which is salvageable. As we do so, an image of organic unity between men and women will emerge — a mutuality and interdependence that does not deny, suppress, or eliminate but rather depends upon real, meaningful sex difference.
After considering Witt’s reliability as a guide to the convoluted debates over biblical interpretation — as well as that of his Protestant foil, Wayne Grudem — we will examine relevant texts in Genesis and the Pauline epistles.
Witt’s Reliability Problem
Much of the relevant biblical debate concerns complex arguments among experts. Because most of us are not competent to adjudicate these disputes, trustworthiness plays an outsized role in guiding our judgment. The plausibility of Witt’s argument, then, is closely tied to his own reliability.
As I implied in the last piece, I am predisposed to trust Witt due to his credentials and my own experiences as his student. Generally speaking, the book reinforces my trust. Witt’s approach, while certainly polemical, is neither dishonest nor uncharitable. Matthew Colvin says that, “Rather than giving [opponents of women’s ordination] credit for abandoning offensive and misogynistic arguments, Witt hangs these past statements as an albatross around the neck of the anti-WO position.” Although Witt’s (literal) “just the messenger” response does not hold up for reasons already documented, Colvin’s critique misconstrues Witt’s specific argument. Witt trots out his litany of historical misogyny to accuse his contemporary opponents not of misogyny but of innovation. In Witt’s telling, it is precisely their rejection of misogyny that undermines their claim to be heirs of an ongoing tradition. Witt largely avoids character-based attacks on his opponents, and he charitably assumes the best about their stated attitudes towards women —- indeed, he grants some of them more credit than I do! — though he does point out perceived inconsistencies between their claimed rejection of female inferiority and their actual positions on gender roles.
Nevertheless, Witt does not always reliably characterize and interpret his evidence. At the conclusion of his chapter on “Mutual Submission,” Witt writes,
‘Given the presumed complementarian acknowledgement that women are neither less intelligent nor less emotionally stable than men, it is puzzling that complementarians make the assertion that women exercising the same kind of freedom that men have always exercised will lead to moral chaos’ (120).
This line, while rhetorically effective, mischaracterizes the complementarians Witt cites — specifically Wayne Grudem. According to Witt’s own description, Grudem claims that “moral discernment in a ‘trajectory’ hermeneutic is ‘a subjective and indeterminate process that will lead to ethical chaos among Christians’” ). A “trajectory” hermeneutic attempts not merely to read St. Paul in light of his cultural context, but to discern how and in which direction St. Paul was pushing his audience away from the regnant culture. This “trajectory” can then be traced “off the page,” if you will, beyond the original context and into our own day, revealing in which direction we ought to push our own culture. While trajectory readings offer a healthy corrective to overly static and wooden interpretations of Scripture, they are also unpredictable. Deciding the precise direction and limit — if any — of a supposed trajectory is exceedingly difficult and can result in dubious and even bizarre applications. Whatever Grudem’s broader views of women exercising authority, the ethical chaos about which he explicitly worries proceeds not from women exercising authority per se but rather from the trajectory hermeneutic used to justify egalitarianism.
This tendency towards rhetorically effective but ultimately inaccurate claims also surfaces when he describes Catholic and Protestant arguments around resemblance to Christ as mutually exclusive. According to Witt, Catholics say “women cannot be ordained because they do not resemble a male Christ,” whereas Protestants claim “women cannot be ordained because they do resemble Christ” in his submission to the Father. Protestant complementarians do not, however, deny women’s ordination because women resemble Christ. Rather, complementarians turn to Christ’s purportedly subordinate relation to the Father to justify how women and men can be equal, despite women not being ordained. Whereas Catholics do argue that the resemblance to Christ is a reason for restricting ordination, the Protestant argument resorts to resemblance merely to explain how restrictive ordination need not imply inequality.
Elsewhere, Witt incorrectly claims that “the Roman Catholic magisterium has explicitly repudiated” anthropological theories of a hierarchy of the sexes (273). The evidence he produces to support this claim is Sara Butler’s statement that anthropological sex difference “is not at the root of the magisterium’s judgment. The complementarity of the sexes does not appear among the ‘fundamental reasons’ given for the Church’s tradition” (quoted in Witt 273, emphasis original). Witt indefensibly reads the magisterium’s silence about male-female anthropology as an explicit repudiation of it. But, as the sentence immediately before that in Butler’s writing makes clear, speculation about anthropological sex difference is considered appropriate, so long as one does not pretend it has magisterial endorsement (see Witt 273). The magisterial response to anthropological speculation is “could be!” whereas Witt wrongly construes it as “absolutely not!”
On at least two occasions, moreover, he reinterprets source material on the basis of his presuppositions in ways almost certainly contrary to the original authors’ meanings. After quoting Manfred Hauke’s assertion that the Church admitted “Gentile Christians to apostolic office,” Witt comments: “By ‘apostolic office,’ Hauke is actually referring to post-apostolic office, since none of Jesus’ original twelve apostles were Gentiles” (400n90). But for Catholics like Hauke, “apostolic office” is shorthand for the episcopacy — those bishops who were commissioned by the apostles themselves to maintain the apostolic office of faithful witness and shepherding of the flock. It is fine for Witt to disagree with this description of the episcopacy, but to “correct” Hauke on the basis of an alien ecclesiology is inappropriate.
On a more troubling occasion, Witt mischaracterizes his source material in order to enlist patristic support for his own claims. In considering whether 1 Timothy 3:11 refers to “wives of deacons” or “women deacons,” Witt claims that “most patristic commentators interpret the passage to be referring to women deacons” (325). But when one turns to the relevant endnote, one finds St. John Chrysostom’s claim that St. Paul “is speaking of those who hold the rank of Deaconesses.” Witt comments, “However, there was no distinction between the office of ‘deacon’ and ‘deaconess’ in the New Testament period. Paul would have been referring to women deacons” (409n28). Whatever the validity of this interpretation of St. Paul, Chrysostom himself speaks neither of “wives of deacons” nor “women deacons” but rather of the then-extant office of “Deaconess” — related to but distinct from the (male) diaconate of Chrysostom’s own day. Witt’s gloss “corrects” what Chrysostom actually said to make it support what Witt supposes he ought to have meant — and on the basis of that distortion, he claims patristic support for his interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11.
More problematic still is his treatment of arguments about “priestesses” — the claim that a female priesthood is characteristic of pagan and not Judeo-Christian religion (173-187). Witt suggests that this argument implicitly links ordained women to the discredited legend of pagan temple prostitution. (Incidentally, Brant Pitre suggests that the legend may not be quite as discredited as Witt claims [Pitre 174n14].) Though aware of the popular conception of temple prostitution in pagan temples, I — like Colvin — was surprised to learn that those who describe female clergy as “priestesses” are “shaming” them by implicitly suggesting “that such women are engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior” and that “for a woman to be ordained is the social equivalence of cult prostitution” (186). I do not myself use the term “priestess,” as it seems to shed more heat than light, but I have never heard anyone connect the term to sexual impropriety — nor, despite Witt’s insinuations to the contrary, does C. S. Lewis make any such connection in his essay on women’s ordination (Lewis 43-50). Witt acknowledges that “Lewis does not specify which practices he associates with ‘priestesses,’” but that is because, according to Witt, Lewis “assumes his readers are familiar with them” (174). This is what we call a baseless accusation. Witt offers no evidence at all to support his claim — no proof that Lewis did in fact “assume” this, and nothing to suggest that the term was widely used this way in Lewis’s own day (though Witt does show that the historicity of cult prostitution was often assumed in academic circles). Witt’s own description of Lewis’s essay as “perhaps the first formal use of the argument” (174) surely means that Lewis could not have counted on an audience to make such a connection without his giving them any hint of it. Witt’s only explicit evidence for this usage by anyone at any time is a Forward in Faith document from 2004 (383n5). The deep irony is that, in suggesting that all who use “priestess” must have cult prostitution in mind, Witt commits the very fallacy of guilt-by-association which he throws at those who use the phrase “priestess.”
Of these mischaracterizations, only the last two — his treatment of Lewis and of Chrysostom — are particularly serious. In my judgment none of them reflect outright dishonesty or deceit (though his use of C. S. Lewis’s essay comes closest to false witness). Nevertheless, the looseness with which Witt engages opponents and characterizes evidence suggests that his dedication to his cause skews his judgment. It casts doubt on his basic reliability as an interpreter of his opponents — and as a guide to the often convoluted debates over biblical interpretation of contested passages.
Witt’s Problematic Conversation Partner
The second section of Witt’s book deals with “Protestant Arguments,” as he terms them — specifically, the hermeneutical claims of evangelical complementarians represented by Wayne Grudem. As a foil for Witt’s position, Grudem is a natural choice. One of the foremost evangelical biblical scholars of our time — the capstone of his career was serving as the general editor of the well-regarded (though not uncontroversial) ESV Study Bible — Grudem may be the most vocal and assertive proponent of complementarian theology among prominent biblical scholars.
Grudem is not, however, an especially reliable figure for Anglicans. In support of complementarianism, he has produced dubious Trinitarian theology, even denying the Nicene Creed for a time. According to Grudem’s own narrative, moreover, his change of mind on the Creed did not come from a chastened respect for creedal authority but was simply a revision of his own judgment about the specific meaning of “eternally begotten.” (In discussing the matter [141-143], Witt does not emphasize Grudem’s shocking disregard for the teaching authority of the Church — but then how could he, given his own dismissal of tradition?) Grudem, moreover, approaches the question of sex difference so rigidly and woodenly as to border on the ridiculous, as Witt documents: Grudem’s defense of women preaching in missionary settings implies that they would have to cease preaching once their hearers convert; women can teach men through books and commentaries but not in an adult Sunday School class; they can teach theology at a secular university but not at a seminary; and so forth (Witt 43-45).
Witt obviously bears no fault for Grudem’s weaknesses, and Grudem probably is the most fitting conversation partner among conservative evangelical complementarians. I simply want to emphasize that Catholic readers have no dog in the fight. We should not accept a dichotomy in which one must choose between Witt and Grudem. Both misread the biblical data in order to support their respective (and very different) agendas around sex difference.
While neither Grudem nor Witt proves ultimately reliable as a guide, the debate between them does help clarify the meaning of the disputed biblical passages to which we now turn.
Genesis and Sex Difference
The theological claim undergirding all of the Old Testament creation accounts is that God lovingly creates an orderly cosmos. In both Genesis accounts, the emergence of the human person as male and female constitutes the pinnacle of creation. Though the advent of sin mars our experience and perception of sex difference — and though our sexuality will no doubt be transformed in glory — the healing work of grace here and hereafter will perfect our nature rather than destroy it. Thus, the creation accounts of Genesis provide essential and, at least in some sense, enduring data about the meaning of human sexuality.
Witt rightly argues that the central anthropological message of the Genesis 1 and 2 stories is the unity of male and female. (Per standard usage, the “Genesis 1” account refers to 1:1-2:4a; “Genesis 2” refers to 2:4b-25.) Differences are important and upheld, but both stories climax with the proclamation of a fundamental unity that underlies and transcends sex difference. In Genesis 1:26-27, the emphasis on “male and female” is brought out precisely to clarify that men and women share in the unique image-bearing quality or vocation of the human person — without such clarification, the grammatically (but not necessarily anatomically) masculine ‘adam (man/human) would leave this all-important question ambiguous. Likewise, in the context of the Genesis 2 story, the most remarkable thing about Eve is that, by contrast with the rest of the creatures, she is like Adam: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” (2:23). And, as St. Thomas Aquinas keenly observes, the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib — from his side, not his head or feet — is full of symbolic significance, implying equality, social union, and procreational reunion (cited in Witt 24).
Nor does either story explicitly uphold a sex-based hierarchy, despite what Grudem claims. The connotations of inferiority or inherent subordination sometimes conveyed by English translations of ‘ezer kenegdo — the KJV’s “help meet” or the ESV’s “helper” — do not do justice to the phrase itself (56). While Hebrew scholar Robert Alter acknowledges that it is “notoriously difficult to translate,” he characterizes the King James as “too weak because” ‘ezer kenegdo usually “connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in the Psalms” (Alter 14n18) — where, as Old Testament scholar Patrick Miller says, it is “often applied to God” and frequently “refers to the person in superior position, able because of greater strength and the like, to ‘help’ the other person” (Miller 313).
At the same time, Genesis 1 and 2 collectively imply meaningful differences in how the man and the woman accomplish their shared tasks as gardeners and potential parents — implications which are made explicit in Genesis 3.
Surprisingly, Witt spends almost no time discussing Genesis 1:28’s divine mandate or blessing (whether the exhortation to be fruitful and subdue the earth constitutes the content of God’s blessing or is a command given in addition to an unspecified blessing is not clear in the text, though this makes little difference, since God’s blessings carry with them duties and responsibilities). This omission is startling given the blessing’s centrality to the creation stories. While it is structurally part of the climax of the first creation account, it also provides a bridge to the second: procreation (emphasized in the first account) is linked to responsibility for creation (described in the second account). It is also the first time God addresses humanity, and it thematically sums up their created purposes in both stories.
Despite all this, Witt only spends one short paragraph (as well as an aside or two) on the passage. Here is his most in-depth treatment of it:
‘The task (or rather “blessing”) of bringing forth children and of stewardship over the earth that is given to humanity is a common task for both men and women as created in the image of God. There are no “gender roles” or gender-specific responsibilities in the passage. Men as well as women are expected to nurture children; women as well as men are expected to exercise stewardship over creation’ (55).
That is all, except for a brief recapitulation of the same material, with the added clarification that “of course, only ‘Eve,’ as a woman, can give birth to children, and is thus the ‘mother of the all living’” (60; he repeats the same data without elaboration on 340).
The implications of Eve’s motherhood are remarkable, despite Witt’s own silence. Both men and women are called to be fruitful and multiply, and both are called to subdue the earth. The divine blessing does not explicitly acknowledge sex difference, but it is clearly in view. The naked realities of biology and agricultural life — supported by the experience of human societies throughout history and indirectly affirmed in Genesis 2 and 3 — suggest that men and women pursue mutual tasks in differing but interdependent ways. Biologically speaking, the task of fruitful multiplication is not one that can be done alone but only through a non-interchangeable interdependence — procreational unity inherently requires meaningful difference. Witt claims that fatherhood and motherhood are not “‘gender roles’ or gender-specific responsibilities” (55). This is true — but only because such language is far too weak to describe the reality! The difference between a mother and a father is not a role performed by thespians, nor is it merely one of life’s many responsibilities, in the way that mowing the lawn has fallen to me in my family’s household economy. The distinction is far more profound — as any honest observer of pregnancy, childbirth, and care of infants could tell you. Of course, “Men as well as women are expected to nurture children” (55). Fathers must be no less dedicated to their children than mothers; to shirk paternal responsibility is to rebel against God. But, apart from the disembodied fever dreams of late-modern egalitarians, there is no version of parenthood — particularly in the earliest stages of human development — in which parental obligations can be split 50/50. Fairly or not, inequitable parental burdens and blessings are inscribed in our very bodies.
Just as men and women fulfill their mutual procreative task differently, so too is our other created task — care for the earth — mutually fulfilled, but in distinctive ways. Genesis 2 is often described as a kind of romance. Whereas biological procreation was fundamentally in view in Genesis 1, Hebrew scholar Phyllis Bird suggests that the “psycho-social” emphasis of Genesis 2 “subordinates function to passion” (Bird, “Genesis I-III as a Source for a Contemporary Theology of Sexuality,” Ex Audita 3 , 38). This is not entirely wrong — Adam’s exclamation upon seeing Eve resounds with the rapturous wonder of a lover seeing his beloved for the first time. But what Bird and others miss is that Genesis 2, while more social and personal, is nevertheless just as functional as Genesis 1 — only instead of foregrounding procreation, the latter half of the divine blessing is in view: subduing the earth.
Adam is given temporal priority in the Genesis 2 story. He is created first — crafted out of the dust — and directly given the task of naming animals, as well as working and taking care of the garden. Eve is built from his side and comes to help him do what he cannot do on his own. None of this suggests either superiority or inferiority — but it does imply real, meaningful, and enduring difference. The point of the story is not that Adam needs any other person; another man would not do. Rather, Adam needs Eve. What this suggests, then, is that just as males and females need one another in order to be fruitful and multiply, so too they need one another in order to subdue the earth as God intended.
The need for sexually differentiated, interdependent cooperation in agriculture, while not obvious in our post-industrial society, would have been intuitive to our agrarian forebears. Witt himself notes that, in a preindustrial society, human biological sex difference necessitates a general division of labor between the sexes — a distinction reflected in all human societies prior to our own late modern situation. Broad sex-correlated differences in size and strength matter, but a woman’s ability to get pregnant and nurse babies makes agrarian labor division absolutely necessary. The second prelapsarian task — subduing the earth, which meant working and taking care of the garden — once again conveys inequitable burdens and blessings.
We should also remember that Genesis was written within and for preindustrial agrarian societies. Eden itself is portrayed as a preindustrial agrarian society! This does not, of course, imply that preindustrial agrarian societies are automatically Edenic — Witt’s litany of preindustrial horrors should rightly put such naive sentimentality to rest. But it does mean that if we want to understand what Genesis 1:28 meant when it was written — and what it meant throughout its interpretive history in Israel and in the Church until the emergence of the post-industrial West — then we have to take this historical context into account.
With this in mind, we can see how God’s judgment in Genesis 3 restates the creation order of mutual tasks carried out differently and interdependently — but now with distortions. Just as Adam was tasked with cultivating the earth in Genesis 2, he will continue to work the ground after the curse, but with more difficulty. Eve gives birth, as intended from the beginning, yet with greater pain. The marital relation between Adam and Eve continues, but with disharmony introduced. (Whereas Witt ascribes this to male domination [58-60] and Colvin to the woman’s “insubordination,” it seems more natural to understand the problem as a mutual striving for dominance and control.)
The historical context of Genesis — its agrarian origins and interpretive history — provides ammunition for chronological snobs to dismiss the particularities of the creation stories as irrelevant to our post-industrial society, but this dismissal is not an option for those of us who believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture and the covenantal relation between God and his people. True, the specific social manifestations of sex difference vary across cultures in time and space. Nor can we always be sure whether a given distinction flows from creation or from sin’s cosmic scope. Moreover, we inevitably experience sex difference, like all created goods, amidst the distortions of sin. Nevertheless, there is no real exegetical basis for Witt’s implication that sex-based agrarian labor divisions are themselves a result of the fall (see 68-71, 338-340; Beth Allison Barr makes the claim even more explicitly in her latest book [see 34-35]). Such claims require us to hold that broad sex-based differences in bone structure, musculature, and general physiology — as well as universal differences in pregnancy, childbirth, and the nursing of infants — either were not rooted in creation in the first place or were not intended for carrying out our divine blessings and tasks.
All of this suggests that the socio-cultural divisions of labor in agrarian societies — which Witt and others see as the culprit in creating false gender roles — are not arbitrary, much less are they a result of the curse as such. We do not experience them in their prelapsarian innocence, but at their heart they flow from created and divinely blessed realities. Hence, our move away from sex difference in post-agrarian societies — which Witt portrays as the precondition for our sudden perception that woman’s ordination was always envisioned by Scripture — is not a move towards restoring prelapsarian innocence but quite the opposite. In Genesis 2, the fundamental means by which Adam begins to carry out his task are naming and gardening — the attention, care, and cultivation of God’s creation. By contrast, the extractive greed and ecological destruction which characterize industrial and post-industrial economies constitute a forsaking of our creational mandate to “subdue” the earth — not subduing but destroying, not dominion but domination. So, too, does the collapse of fertility in the wealthiest post-industrialized nations forsake the call to be fruitful in Genesis 1. Once we understand that the plausibility of women’s ordination is — by Witt’s own telling, though not by his admission — historically dependent upon a rejection of the divine blessing, his relative silence about Genesis 1:28 becomes more understandable, though far more problematic.
Before leaving Genesis, we should note one other point that Witt fails to address. Particularly when read in the canonical context of the Old Testament and of the whole Bible, Genesis 2 clearly describes the cosmos as a temple, with Eden as the Holy of Holies, and Adam as a priest serving in that temple (See G. K. Beale’s recent essay; Johnson 121-122; Bergsma 8-28). If Witt makes far too little of all this — he does not mention it — we should not make too much of it. Taken alone, this point has nothing to say about whether women could be ordained. Indeed, it could just as easily be taken as evidence for women’s ordination, since Eve implicitly shares in Adam’s priestly role — she is created to help him accomplish it, and he apparently could not do it on his own! What it does affirm, however, is the centrality of priestly imagery in the Bible, which I will describe in the next essay. Moreover, Adam’s dual role as both husband and priest provides our first hint of a connection between holy orders and marriage. In the final essay of this series, I will show how the priestly character of Adam — and his ultimate failure as priest and husband — also looms behind the sacrificial iconography of the husband in St. Paul’s theology.
Witt includes an analysis of the Gospels (“Disciples of Jesus”) in his “Protestant Arguments” section, but the real Protestant fireworks around sex difference center on the New Testament epistles. Moreover, given the way that Christology is tightly connected to “Catholic Arguments,” we will save our primary discussion of Jesus for the next essay and pass over to Witt’s treatment of the Pauline passages typically used to reject women’s ordination: the marriage teachings in Ephesians 5 and the “headship” passage in 1 Corinthians 11, as well as texts about women speaking, teaching, and holding authority in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. In recent times, Catholics have not typically resorted to these passages in discussing women’s ordination, but they do matter for the broader picture of sexuality to which ordination is related. Moreover, when we read Ephesians 5 with Genesis in mind, we begin to see how priesthood connects to marriage.
Witt’s argument requires wrestling with a difficult set of passages. He faces something of a tall task, in that a “plain reading” of most or all major English translations of the disputed passages would imply female submission in marriage, men’s authority over women, women’s silence in church, and the inappropriateness of women teaching or having authority over men. Witt effectively argues that much of this supposed “plain reading” actually depends upon connotations of English translations that are not necessarily present in the Greek, failures to consider the generic nature of Greek household advice, and an overly simplistic hermeneutic that assumes a one-to-one correspondence between St. Paul’s context and our own. While Witt’s arguments effectively dismantle the most strident complementarian readings of St. Paul — and his work certainly encourages humility on our part as readers — Witt does not ultimately convince regarding his own position, which is that St. Paul advocates a sexually undifferentiated egalitarianism.
Much of Witt’s discussion focuses upon highly specialized “battles of the experts.” To those of us without advanced training in Koine Greek, significant portions of the argument essentially boil down to “he said, she said” dilemmas. According to the egalitarian experts, 1 Timothy 2:12 (“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”) dealt with a unique Ephesian situation of female dominance, and the verb authentein really means “to domineer” or “to dominate” (159). No, say the complementarians, the Ephesian situation is not meaningfully different from the rest of the Greco-Roman world, and authentein just means “to exercise authority” (Jefferies 67-78). According to the egalitarians, women “prophesying” in 1 Corinthians 11:5 refers to authoritative speaking in a liturgical context, given that the latter half of the chapter deals with the Eucharistic celebration and the chapters which follow are about church order (149). No, say their opponents, it refers to non-liturgical speech; the context is within the household rather than the public church, since the chapters before are largely dedicated to household and family situations, and a rhetorical shift after the passage in question suggests a change in context from home to public worship (Jefferies 81-95).
And so on.
Along with Fr. Ben Jefferies, cited above, Matthew Colvin — a clergyman in the Reformed Episcopal Church and a classicist — strongly disputes Witt’s characterization of the scholarly consensus, as well as many of his specific linguistic arguments. While Colvin (a Cornell Ph.D. in classics) has better linguistic credentials than Witt (a Notre Dame Ph.D. in systematic theology), many of those whom Witt cites for support have, in turn, more specifically relevant linguistic credentials than Colvin. Grudem’s scholarly qualifications (a Cambridge Ph.D. in New Testament studies) are as good as anyone’s.
One could be forgiven for concluding that textual expertise and scholarship are really quite beside the point. How one interprets these disputed passages is determined in advance by one’s preferred position in relation to women’s ordination or authority, with the scholarship then mustered to confirm these prior assumptions and commitments. For instance, in arguing that Junia (Rom. 16:7) was a female apostle, Witt draws implicit support from certain Church fathers, who, he is quick to emphasize, “were native educated Greek speakers” (311). Meanwhile, Fr. Jefferies, arguing that authentein just means authority, points to how the word was “later used by Church Fathers… most of whom were themselves native Greek speakers” (Jefferies 74). Neither draws attention to native-Greek-speaking fathers when the fathers’ interpretations would be inconvenient for his own position (though, in fairness, Fr. Jefferies never addresses the Junia question).
Although the discussion frequently devolves into arcane, inscrutable, and arguably ephemeral debates over this or that disputed point of Greek grammar or syntax, much of the discussion remains accessible and worth investigating. Regarding Ephesians 5:21-33, Witt makes the common and generally persuasive argument that the submission of wives to husbands in 5:22 is a particular example of a broader principle of submission in 5:21. The grammatical structure of 5:21-22 suggests as much, given that 5:22 borrows its verb from 5:21 (“All must be subject to one another in the respect of Christ — wives, to your husbands as to the Lord,” per Witt’s translation ). Indeed, St. Paul, in concert with the whole New Testament, describes the Church as a community characterized by care for and deference towards others, undergirded by a revolutionary Christian understanding of order, hierarchy, and authority.
This point is strengthened when we remember that St. Paul’s writing corresponds to a broader Greco-Roman genre of proverbial “household codes.” Whereas Aristotle and others only addressed the paterfamilias — the head of the household — and instructed him to rule over his subordinates, “Paul addresses the subordinates in the household first, treating them as responsible moral agents” (105). When St. Paul addresses those with power in ancient Rome, he emphasizes their duties and obligations to those under their power. This is true in all the relations described in Ephesians 5, including parents and children as well as masters and slaves, but the instructions to husbands and wives are particularly empowering for women. As Witt notes, wives — unlike children and slaves — “are not told to ‘obey’” (108, though see Colvin on this point). Just as importantly, husbands are not told to make their wives submit but rather to “love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25). In other words, the submission described in Ephesians 5:22 must be voluntary, chosen, and free. It cannot be coerced or compelled by husbands — who are themselves called not to domination but rather to cruciform self-sacrifice. Nor is submission a state of passivity. Submitting to one’s bishop, for instance, does not require passively assenting to anything the bishop does. When we consider submission in light of the many Psalms which cry out for justice and demand that God fulfill his promises, we see that proper submission includes demanding that those in authority live up to their callings and obligations in Christ! Finally, it is certainly the case that, in various ways and circumstances, all Christians must exercise submission and self-sacrifice.
But, for Witt’s argument to work, we must go quite a bit further than all this. Witt’s reading requires not only that Christians share in a community characterized by submission and self-sacrifice, but that this community be one of undifferentiated mutual submission — not so much a diverse organism composed of inherently differentiated and harmonious parts but rather a uniform colony of discrete and interchangeable organisms.
Given what we have seen in Genesis 1-2, we should not be surprised to find that, just as men and women carry out their joint tasks of fruitfulness and dominion in different ways, so too the shared community of submission and self-sacrifice that is the Church manifests differently for different members of the community. While Witt rightly says that “submission in this context is not something that is being asked uniquely of wives to husbands” (109, emphasis added), he fails to appreciate that St. Paul did specifically apply it to wives. A sexually undifferentiated egalitarianism requires us to believe that St. Paul could just as easily have said, “husbands submit to your wives as to the Lord” — and “wives must love their husbands as Christ loved the church by giving himself up for it” (cf 5:25) — without any meaning whatsoever being lost. This reading essentially makes the whole of Ephesians 5:22-30 superfluous and arbitrary at best, if not confusing and actively misleading. As I will eventually show in my final essay, the association of the husband with Christ and the wife with the Church constitutes a crucial strand of salvation history, going back all the way to Adam’s failed sacrificial role as husband and as priest. That failure is reversed by Jesus Christ on the cross, and it is that reversal which grounds the husband’s duty to sacrifice for his wife as Christ for the Church.
Witt is more successful in casting doubt on the assumptions made about the “plain reading” of other passages. There is good reason to be skeptical of the “male headship” readings of 1 Corinthians 11 by Grudem and the like. In contemporary English, the metaphorical use of “head” to communicate authority or leadership is so widespread that we often forget that it is a metaphor. When we read in 1 Corinthians 11:3 that the man (or husband) is the head of the woman (or wife), the word “head” — in Greek, kephale — quite literally refers to the part of the human body above the neck. We cannot assume that contemporary English connotations about this body part are present in ancient Greek (125; again, though, compare Colvin). Witt argues that St. Paul meant head as source rather than authority (128-129) — think the “headwaters” of a river rather than the “head waiter” of a restaurant. The order of 11:3 would be odd if authority were in view (125). It makes better sense as the order of creation and of salvation history: the pre-incarnate Agent of Creation is the source of Adam, Adam is the source of Eve, and God is the source of the Incarnate Word (130-131). Likewise, Witt points out that, despite the predominant pattern of contemporary translation, the Greek of 1 Corinthians 11:10 does not specify that “a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (emphasis added) — “the words ‘symbol of’ are found nowhere in the Greek text” (132) but are instead an inference based on the contextual references to head coverings.
Still, the numerous ways Witt offers for reading passages like this one as egalitarian generally backfire. In many cases the various interpretations are mutually exclusive. After arguing that 1 Corinthians 11 has nothing at all to do with gender-differentiated authority (128-135), Witt shifts to the “Christological subversion” argument that it is about authority and gender difference, but in a way subversive of patriarchal expectations (135-138) — before finally presenting Alan Padgett’s “provocative” suggestion that the key verses straightforwardly describe patriarchy, but that they are not St. Paul’s own position. Rather, deus ex machina, they are a quotation of a position that St. Paul is refuting (138-140). Witt strikes an almost wistful tone regarding Padgett’s novel theory, which Witt finds appealing, but which has not “been endorsed by a significant number of New Testament scholars” (140). Witt offers a similar plethora of options for 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“Let your women keep silence in the churches…”). Perhaps it is an interpolation (147-149; Witt ultimately suggests it is not). If not, maybe he is quoting his opponents (149). Or, if neither, then it must be about some disorder specific to the Corinthian church rather than a binding statement for all (149-155). Though St. Paul may seem to describe meaningful sex-based differentiation in the Church with unnerving regularity, we need not fret. Whatever these passages mean — and after all, who really knows? — the one thing we can be sure of is that they do not mean what the complementarians take them to mean!
Witt does cast serious doubt on Grudem’s reading of many Pauline passages, and he effectively explains St. Peter’s apparently harsher advice in 1 Peter 3. (As Witt notes, St. Peter explicitly directs his instruction to wives who are married to unbelieving husbands — a very different situation than that in the Ephesians church, given the social and legal paterfamilias system of Ancient Rome [117-118].) At the very least, Witt calls us beyond a superficial reading of the average English translation. Nevertheless, when we step back from the intricacies of particular passages, Witt’s position remains weak. Without claiming to adjudicate the specific linguistic controversies, about which I am unqualified to speak, we can place this debate within a broader historical, theological, and canonical context. Significantly, in order to accept Witt’s position, one must dismiss (or at least highly circumscribe) both Protestant perspicuity and Catholic tradition. His is a position neither Catholic nor Reformed. According to the egalitarians, the true meaning of a critical strand of biblical theology is knowable neither by Tyndale’s ploughboy nor by the traditions of the Church. It is known only to a handful of scholarly experts of the last half century or so.
Having established a more nuanced reading of Genesis and St. Paul, we are left wondering whether any of this really matters. As Witt notes, the real questions are hermeneutical rather than exegetical — not merely, “What did it mean then?” but also, “What does that passage then mean for us now?” Witt rightly dismisses Grudem’s wooden hermeneutic assuming that whatever advice or commands St. Paul gave in the past are automatically applicable today, with a one-to-one correspondence between then and now.
As I have argued elsewhere in relation to a closely associated question, we cannot
‘blindly apply the Pauline injunctions [given to Ephesian slaves to slaves in 19th-century America.] They do, however, apply — just as they apply to all of us. The Bible is the Word of God. Every jot and tittle matters. But as we are not members of first-century house churches in Ephesus, all applications of Pauline imperatives operate by analogy — even when applying the advice to other slaves, whether in ancient Rome or in Athens, Georgia…. Moreover, while St. Paul’s epistles are specific to the particular communities he wrote, the household advice in them is generic. It is a template for living well in Christ, not individualized advice for specific circumstances.’
In other words, Ephesians 5 is both specific (relating to a historical situation wholly different from our own) and general (as proverbial advice rather than ironclad rules for every circumstance) in ways that defy superficial applications.
Still, we ought to be wary of what Colvin describes as “the ideologically driven re-imagination of the first-century context so that Scripture’s prohibitions are confined to very narrow and specific circumstances.” While Pauline imperatives operate for us by analogy, some of them are more directly applicable than others. Slavery and marriage are manifestly distinct — the former is ultimately a result of sin, whereas the latter is instituted directly by God before the fall. True, the institution of marriage manifests differently in different historical contexts, and that context is relevant for understanding what St. Paul means — but the burden of proof falls on those who wish to claim its irrelevance to us. And given St. Paul’s repeated recourse to creation and to the relation between Christ and his Church as an analog for male-female difference, particularly in marriage, such a project seems unlikely to succeed.
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As the foregoing discussion suggests, rightly discerning the nature and significance of sexuality in the Bible proves quite a challenge. One can easily end up so overstating the importance of sex difference as practically to erase the overarching emphasis on human unity in Genesis — a unity absent which one could indeed doubt the soteriological efficacy of a male Christ (as Marc Cortez warns, 190-211). Grudem obviously tends towards this overemphasis, evident in his flirtation with outright Christological heresy. Catholics are not immune either. While St. John Paul II’s vision of sexuality bears little resemblance to evangelical complementarians, his work at times almost implies that men and women constitute distinct species (see Megan K. DeFranza 159, 165, 173-174). Likewise, even such a brilliant and thoroughly orthodox theologian as E. L. Mascall occasionally wrote of sex difference in problematic ways.
(Witt provides one such instance, citing “a letter from E. L. Mascall that states: ‘It was male human nature the Son of God united to his divine person’ and that ‘no female human nature was assumed by a divine person’” [400n76, emphasis original]. In context and in other similar formulations, Mascall clearly means that, although Jesus assumed human nature as a male, no human person was ever so highly honored in salvation history as the Blessed Virgin Mary — but he makes the point rather imprecisely. For the quote’s greater context see Sara Butler 515; for a slightly more careful formulation of the same idea see Mascall, “Sexuality in God” 140.)
While there is no simple “cure all” for these difficulties, Timothy Fortin’s careful analysis of sex difference through a Thomistic lens provides a helpful model for avoiding these opposing errors. Following St. Thomas Aquinas (and Aristotle), Fortin notes that the human species cannot be complete in any individual, because reproduction is a necessary element of speciation. Even celibate persons remain members of a fundamentally bifurcated species, and their bodies points towards completion in union with “another,” which completion the institution of marriage signifies. Nevertheless, one’s sex cannot be an essential part of the human species — otherwise men and women would constitute different species, implicitly denying the image-bearing capacity of one or the other (contra Gen. 1:26) and casting serious doubt on the soteriological efficacy of the Incarnation for women.
Fortin suggests that human sexuality is “a quality of the human being that, though an accident, flows from the human essence and, so, merits the name ‘essential accident’ — a kind of “medium between substance and accident” (Fortin 398, 428; cf. Witt’s weaker treatment of sexuality as accident, 237). While sex difference is not “a specific difference” — one constitutive of a species — male and female are “essential qualities of the human being,” and the complex compositions of sexuality are “unified by their ordering to distinct modes of generativity best summarized as ‘motherhood’ and ‘fatherhood’” (398-399). There is not space here to develop Fortin’s argument further, but it seems to me that an orthodox view of men and women requires maintaining just such a precarious balance between errors. And this balance, this tension, seems to be precisely what we find when we examine the biblical record on sexuality.
If, in Genesis and in St. Paul, we are given communities of sexually differentiated interdependence, then we should not be surprised to find that the polity of the Church also includes such sexual differentiation. As Mascall writes
‘…if it is true that the order of redemption is not isolated from the order of creation and that grace does not ignore or destroy nature but presupposes and perfects it, it would be very strange if the differentiation of function on the level of nature was not paralleled by a not less marked differentiation of function on the level of grace’ (Mascall 19-20).
“Male and female created he them.”
The God who crafted the cosmos also breathed the Church into being. The Author of creation who is the Source of grace weaves a single tapestry. Brilliant though the contrast between threads may be, we should expect to find in them a coherent beauty rather than discordant disharmony. Our finitude and fallibility may inhibit our perception of God’s beautiful tapestry, but our task is not to judge the work of God as critics but rather, as creatures and disciples, to discern the beauty therein.
In the third installment, I will show how the biblical view of priesthood and the narratives of the Gospels do in fact presume a sex-based differentiation of function on the level of grace, before provisionally considering why that might be so in the final essay of this series.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.