Ordination and Embodiment, Part 4
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 4: Sacrificial Masculinity and the Priesthood
“On the cardinal points of Christian doctrine,” writes E. L. Mascall, “orthodoxy consists in holding together two notions which might well seem to be incompatible.” When confronted with what “seem to be incompatible notions,” we may be tempted “to opt for one of them to the exclusion of the other and so to fall into error.” If, instead, “we go on to enquire how they must be understood if they are not to be incompatible we shall acquire a very much more profound understanding of the question at issue than we had when we began” (Mascall 1956, xiii).
So it is with the restriction of ordination to (some) men.
To many within the Church today (not to mention those without), this sex-based restriction appears to deny the image-bearing capacity of women — hence the title of Bill Witt’s book, Icons of Christ. Nor should it be denied that some, in their zeal to oppose the innovation of women’s ordination, have resorted to dubious arguments that do not seem to honor the full dignity of women as enshrined in Genesis and manifested in the ministry of Jesus Christ. In consequence, many have rejected the historic practice of the Church as a residuum of an unbiblical patriarchy.
But at what cost?
I began this series by exposing the unsupportable historical, ecclesiological, and theological premises undergirding arguments for women’s ordination. In my second essay, I outlined a biblical theology of sex difference in creation and in St. Paul. In the last piece, I argued that the Bible unambiguously presents us with an exclusively male priesthood. We could have stopped our investigation there. In fact, we could have stopped at the conclusion of the first essay, if all we wanted to know was whether the Church could licitly and validly ordain women. But to stop there would not do justice to the orthodox instinct, which is to view paradoxes and “stumbling blocks” as invitations into deeper reflection on biblical and orthodox truths (Constas 20-24).
These days it is increasingly difficult to honor the tension between the Bible’s unambiguous assertion of the dignity of women and the Church’s biblical and historical practice of ordination. To accept the latter not only entails giving up a seat at the cool kids’ table of contemporary theology; it also requires us to confront the fundamental implausibility of Christian sexuality in contemporary culture. To riff on Rudolf Bultmann, it really is quite difficult to live in this late modern world of infertility, endless consumption, and alienation from the body — and at the same time to believe in the biblical world of male-female sex difference.
But if we trust that God knows more and loves better than we, if we hold that the Bible is the record of his love for us, and if we contend that all the ills of this world and this culture will be healed in Jesus, then we must sort out how the dignity of women can sit alongside the sex-based restriction of ordination. And so, in this essay, I press on into more disputed, tentative, and provisional territory, attempting to discern what God might be teaching us amidst the paradoxes and tensions of Catholic faith and practice. Surprisingly enough, a biblical vision of authentic manhood related to ordination emerges most clearly from the narratives of failed masculinity in the Bible — the endless stream of male violence and male cowardice, and the wreckage of shattered lives left in the wake. This bleak narrative cries out for a man — even just one man — who is neither cruel nor cowardly, and whose courage manifests in sacrifice.
In Persona Christi
The typical Catholic explanation for the restriction of ordination to (some) men is essentially iconographic. In the sacraments — and most explicitly in the Eucharist — the priest stands in persona Christi. Since Christ was and is male, the explanation goes, it is iconographically fitting for the priest to be male as well.
In evaluating this claim, we need to have some sense of what an icon is. Icon literally means “image.” An icon, therefore, is a visual representation of something else. Though we often think of icons as specifically religious, they need not be — for instance, the “icons” which clutter my computer’s “desktop.” Nor must they be inanimate objects. The notion of a “pop culture icon” most properly refers to figures so noteworthy that they come to represent a whole cultural era. Icons are by definition distinct from but related to that which they represent, and, by contrast with other forms of representation, iconography is inherently visual. This does not necessarily mean the icon must actually look like that which it represents. With “painted icons” (classical Eastern iconography) a visual resemblance is indeed intended — but, as the Orthodox bishop and theologian Kallistos Ware points out, “the priest is not a painted icon” (Ware 1999, 49). Similarly, Marc Cortez argues that the imago Dei of Genesis 1:26 presents the human person as God’s true idol, his true presence in the world. But, says Cortez, this presence does not imply visual resemblance between God and the human creature. In the Ancient Near East, an idol (image/icon) had to be material and visible, but “nothing in the concept of an idol requires similarity, and some idols were mere lumps of rock” (Cortez, ReSourcing 109n35; see also Cortez, Theological Anthropology 32-33). Thus, while visual resemblance is not inherent to all icons, a tangible, visual presentation is key — and the viewing community must link the visual presentation of the icon to that which is iconographically represented.
Consider two examples of representation: the American flag and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The American flag does not “look like” America in any concrete way, and it would be a meaningless cipher to anyone living 250 years ago — but every contemporary American (along with the vast majority of living persons anywhere today) automatically associates it with the United States. By contrast, the ambassador’s representation is functional in nature, not visual. He or she speaks on behalf of the country but there is no visual correspondence between the ambassador’s person and the nation (unless the ambassador is wearing a flag lapel pin, of course). Hence we can say that the flag’s method of representation is iconic, while the ambassador’s is not.
As we navigate the debate around the in persona Christi argument, we will need to distinguish carefully between the broad category of representation and the subcategory of iconographic representation — as well as the related-but-distinct question of visual resemblance.
With this in mind, we can better answer some questions prompted by the in persona Christi explanation. The first question is whether the priest does in fact iconographically represent Jesus Christ at the altar. If we answer in the affirmative, then we must determine why Christ’s maleness matters iconographically, such that only men can stand in persona Christi — but not other aspects of his carnal human flesh and historical particularity, such as his height, size, phenotypic appearance, and his Jewishness. Finally, if we determine that his maleness is uniquely significant for iconographic presentation, we must figure out how to uphold this without denying that both men and women are made in the image of God. How, in other words, do we respond to theologian Emily Hunter McGowin’s soteriological argument that, “If Women Can Be Saved, Then Women Can Be Priests”? (McGowin, in turn, based her argument in part on Witt’s earlier blog post which eventually formed the core of chapter 12 of his book.)
Does the Priest Act In Persona Christi?
That the priest acts in persona Christi might seem obvious, given that he stands at the altar reciting Jesus’ Words of Institution: “This is my Body… This is my Blood…” But this conclusion does not necessarily follow. The Baptist pastors of my youth also recited the Words of Institution before communion, but no one would mistake this recitation for a Christic performance amidst an iconographic drama. Following Ware and the Jesuit priest and liturgical theologian Edward J. Kilmartin, Witt argues that the Eucharistic canon is not a drama in which the celebrant enacts the role of Christ but rather a “narrative of thanksgiving” and “a unified prayer to the Father” (214, 220). Ware in particular points out that in the East (and the West prior to Vatican II), the celebrant does not face the people during the canon. Rather, with the people, the celebrant faces the altar “as a supplicant before God” (Ware 1999, 48; quoted in Witt 214). In discussing the Orthodox theologian Elisabeth Behr-Siegel, Witt further suggests that the notion of in persona Christi inappropriately casts the priest as the sacramental agent in the Eucharist — inappropriate because the priest does not act as Christ; rather, Christ himself acts through the priest (214-215).
Witt’s argument, however, rests upon false dichotomies between narrative prayer and dramatic enactment, as well as between the actions of God and the agents of God. Ware himself notes that, outside the Eucharistic canon proper, the priest does speak and act in Christ’s name while facing the people (Ware 1999, 48; noted in Witt, 215; in Anglican liturgy, such moments include the Summary of the Law, the Absolution, and the Blessing). More importantly, while the anamnesis of the Eucharist narrates a past event, through that narration Jesus Christ breaks into the present. Even as the priest recites with his mouth the words of the liturgy, praying to God with the congregation, he also ritualistically and dramatically enacts Christ’s fourfold Eucharistic action — taking bread, blessing, breaking, and distributing it. In this mystical encounter between Jesus Christ, the celebrant, and the people of God, any attempt to maintain a clean boundary between narrative and drama is bound to fail. Nor is there any meaningful tension between saying that the priest acts in persona Christi and saying that it is Jesus Christ himself working through the priest. In every Eucharistic theology which purports to convey “Real Presence,” nothing happens absent the mystical action of the Holy Trinity.
Thus, we can affirm that the priest acts in persona Christi — but at the same time he also acts in persona ecclesiae, representing the Church to God. Throughout Scripture and tradition, the Church is typically described in analogically feminine terms as the Bride of Christ. As Ware points out, “It is no coincidence that the symbolic figure of the Orans on the walls of several Roman catacombs, representing the Christian soul waiting upon the Spirit, should take the form of a woman” (Ware 1999, 11; cf. Ware 1983, 10). Moreover, the Blessed Virgin Mary is traditionally seen as an icon of the Church, and all Anglicans identify themselves as handmaidens of the Lord when they sing the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. C. S. Lewis, in his essay arguing against a female priesthood, readily admits that there could be no problem with a woman representing the Church, praying to God on our behalf (Lewis 46). Thus, Witt quotes Kilmartin, who asserts that the priesthood “seems to demand both male and female officer bearers” (quoted in Witt 222). Others go even further. The Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley suggests — in a provocative, brilliant, and misguided essay — that there is an inherent “gender fluidity” to the priesthood (Coakley 74). Witt stops short of this, but he does argue that, if the priest’s role in representing Christ authorizes male priests, then the role of representing the Church surely authorizes female priests as well.
This in persona ecclesiae argument ultimately fails because — ironically, given the title of his book — Witt misunderstands both the purpose and function of iconography. Icons exist for our benefit: to enlighten and teach us and to spur us to devotion, prayer, and worship. They do not edify God, who does not need iconographic “clues.” This matters when we consider how and to whom the priest stands in persona ecclesiae. While the priest does represent the Church to God along with representing Christ to the Church, the priest never represents the Church to the Church in the Mass. In the Eucharistic celebration, the priest is not a mirror in which the Church sees itself but rather a window through which the Church sees Christ. Whenever the priest speaks to the assembled parish, he does so either as a prophet bringing the Word of the Lord (as in the Summary of the Law: “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith…”) or as an iconographic agent through whom Christ himself acts to absolve or to bless the assembly. The priest does speak on behalf of the assembly — but only when he speaks to God, who does not need icons. All of the iconographic significance flows from the priest’s Christ-to-Church orientation. Put differently, the priest in the Mass serves as a representative of the Church to God and as an icon of Jesus Christ to the Church.
Is the Priest’s Sex Iconographically Significant?
This does not, however, tell us anything about the relation between iconographic representation and the priest’s sex. Witt’s in persona ecclesiae argument initially appears to assume the iconographic significance of sexuality. If the priest’s role as both Christ and the Church “seems to demand both” men and women (232), then there must be a meaningful connection between the sex of the representative and the sex of that which is represented — whether the literal sex of Christ or the analogical sex of the Church. More broadly, though, I read Witt as suggesting that, even if you think the sex of the priest is iconographically significant, that does not resolve the question of women’s ordination. Elsewhere, he rejects the iconographic significance of sex difference altogether, downplaying or dismissing a sacramental and liturgical iconography in favor of a kind of moral or ethical pseudo-iconography. Following Sumner, Witt argues that the priest imitates Christ not so much in his body but rather in his kenotic self-emptying — in pointing away from self and towards Christ (214-217, 229-232).
But, in addition to misunderstanding the purpose of icons, Witt also misconstrues how icons function. He emphatically insists that the priest acts as an icon by “pointing away from himself or herself (as does John the Baptist in Grunewald’s famous triptych) to the crucified and risen Lord” (231). Witt says that the priest points away from himself six times on pages 231-232 alone, and he repeats that claim throughout the book (e.g. 240, 290, 342, 343). The problem is that, as the Church definitively teaches in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, icons do not point away from themselves; rather, icons portray God through themselves. That Council, following St. John of Damascus (who was himself following St. Basil of Caesarea), affirmed that “the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.” While Anglicans have been (needlessly) hesitant to accept the Seventh Council’s authority, the most relevant and definitive Anglican statement about the nature of icons — the joint Anglican-Orthodox Dublin Statement of 1984 — affirms the fundamental means by which icons direct us to God: an icon is “a means of entering into relationship with the person or event it represents; and… God, through the icon, bestows his sanctifying grace” (113, emphasis added). This insight is obvious to anyone who has spent time praying with the aid of icons or even just imagining how such prayer might work. We are edified by prayerfully contemplating the icon before us — not by looking away from it.
Even so, looking through rather than away from the priestly icon does not answer our questions, particularly when we consider the traditional description of the icon as a “window” into eternity, a metaphor I have already employed above. This seems to be what Ware has in mind when he says that the ministerial priest’s “vocation is to be transparent, for his priesthood exists solely in order to render Christ present” (Ware 1999, 46). This, however, misconstrues how Christ becomes present through the priest — or through anyone, for that matter! Christ’s presence is manifested in his human icons not when they cease to be visible for who they are, but precisely by manifesting Jesus Christ through who they are, in their very particularity. As Gerard Manley Hopkins famously wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
Furthermore, in traditional iconographic theology, the “window” refers not to the person portrayed but rather the iconographic medium of portrayal. Through the window of the written icon itself — the arrangement of paint and gold leaf on a given surface — the subject is seen in eternal glory. Through the window of iconographic artistry, an icon of Christ portrays Christ in glory. In the same way, an icon of a saint portrays that saint in glory. That saint also manifests Jesus Christ — not by the erasure of the saint, but rather through the saint’s glorification. Classical Eastern icons present us with glorified saints, whose participation in the divine life has been rendered visible. We see Jesus in and through them. Even when icons quite literally point to Jesus Christ — as in the Grunewald triptych or in the icons of St. John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary which flank the altar at All Saints, Charlottesville — we are edified not by ignoring them but by contemplating and imitating their devotion to Christ (and, of course, by following their lead to contemplate Christ on the altar as well). Even the most (supposedly) iconoclastic Protestants understand this implicitly whenever they say that they “see Jesus in you.”
Of course, priests are not “painted icons,” as we have noted. They are living icons — and we know that, while icons must be visibly associated with the person or thing represented, they do not necessarily have to bear a visual resemblance. Moreover, we see Jesus Christ through an icon of a female saint just as clearly as we do through a male saint. The Seventh Council’s authorization of hyperdulia for the Blessed Virgin Mary alone suggests that a particular woman manifests the glory of God more fully than any other (non-divine) person in salvation history. So how can we be sure that the sex of Jesus is iconographically determinative of the priest’s sex — but not other aspects of Christ’s human particularity? The answer is simply the biblical data we explored last time. We are no longer reasoning towards but rather from the biblical and traditional affirmation of male priesthood. (Iconographers similarly work within a given tradition. They are not free, for instance, to portray St. Paul however they would like but must conform their rendering to the contours and limits of the image as handed down by the living tradition of the Church; see Fr. Maximos Constas’s brilliant lecture, as well as Leonid Ouspensky’s important essay [23-49]; Wilgus makes a similar argument briefly .) And so, we receive maleness as a given within the iconographic tradition of the priesthood.
The Bible does not extend iconographic significance to other particularities of the Incarnate Christ, not even that most critical particularity — his Jewishness. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who fulfills Jewish hopes. Likewise, as Witt points out, the twelve apostles are themselves not only male but also Jewish, typologically fulfilling the role of the patriarchs (see 91, 265; Witt has the typological order backwards, as noted previously). Nevertheless, when we considered the apostolic office and the priesthood more broadly, we found that Jewishness is incidental, whereas maleness is universal. The priesthood predates the existence of the Jewish people, going all the way back to Adam. (John Bergsma also describes Noah in priestly terms, 29-30). And even as Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, his priesthood — while fulfilling the model established in the Levitical priesthood — is most directly linked not to Aaron or to Levi but to the pre-Abrahamic figure of Melchizedek. When we look beyond the terrestrial life of Christ into the early history of the Church, we find that ethnic Jewishness is not necessary among the successors of the apostles. Jewishness, then, is not a constituent element of the priesthood.
Later, I will consider why maleness might be uniquely significant for the sacrificial priesthood in contrast with all other accidents of Christ’s humanity. Here I am simply reaffirming that it is so.
If Women Cannot Be Priests, How Can They Be Saved?
We now turn to the final and most serious objection to the in persona Christi argument: whether and how we can maintain that priests must be iconographically male without denying the biblical testimony that men and women are both icons of Christ, as indicated by Genesis 1:26 (in the order of creation) and Galatians 3:28 (in the order of salvation). If men and women both participate in the royal priesthood of all believers, how can we say that the ministerial priesthood of Holy Orders is restricted to men? Would this not undermine the salvific efficacy of Christ’s Incarnation for women, given the soteriological principle, “that which is not assumed is not saved”? As McGowin puts it, “If women qua women are fundamentally incapable—and, according to some Christians, even ontologically incapable—of representing the male Jesus Christ in their female persons, then that calls into question whether their female persons can be redeemed by the male Jesus Christ” (emphasis original; Witt makes this claim explicitly on only one occasion , so far as I noticed, though it hovers in the background elsewhere [e.g. 259-264].)
Answering the soteriological objection requires a careful anthropology. Catholics often argue that sexuality constitutes an ontological difference, which risks dividing men and women into separate species. Egalitarians, by contrast, relegate sex difference to a mere accident, making it ultimately (though not experientially) equivalent to hair color or height. At the conclusion of the second essay of this series, I briefly outlined Timothy Fortin’s nuanced elaboration of sexuality as “an essential accident.” Sex difference as such is ontologically necessary, but one’s actual sex is accidental. Maintaining this crucial tension will help us navigate these difficult questions, particularly when we remember Mascall’s notion that the order of creation should be fittingly echoed within the order of grace. The God who crafted the cosmos also breathed the Church into being, and we should not be surprised to discover harmonious resonances between creation and the Church.
Along with a nuanced anthropology, we also need a fully developed ecclesiology. Recapturing the sacramental nature of marriage and of holy orders — without diminishing the common priesthood of all Christians — will help us grasp their particular sacramental logic and corresponding iconography. We have not spent much time investigating the distinction between the royal priesthood of all believers and the ministerial priesthood conferred at ordination. Through the sacrament of baptism, men and women are equally icons of Christ in the royal priesthood of all believers. All Christians share a priestly vocation to assist in the Eucharistic celebration and, as citizens of heaven, to shape their worldly vocations and relations towards holiness. (I recommend Bergsma’s elaboration of the distinction [105-129] or, more briefly, Kallistos Ware’s discussion [Ware 1999, 42-46; cf Ware 1983 20-23; summarized in Witt 212-213].) By contrast, the ministerial priest is ordained fundamentally to bless and to sacrifice. He bears a particular iconographic significance in the Mass — one which is tightly related to that of the husband in marriage. Both, through sacrifice, are icons of Christ in relation to the Church. Through and within the sacrament of matrimony, husbands represent Christ in ways that wives do not — and wives represent the Church in ways that husbands do not. Their iconographic roles are distinct, non-interchangeable, and interdependent. Neither can act iconographically without the other. Understood within a robust ecclesiology and sacramentology, the particular icons of the husband in marriage and the priest in the Mass are distinguishable from — though related to — the icon of the Christian in Christ. Marriage and ordination do not “bleed over” into non-marital and non-clerical relations such that men have a special iconographic relation to Jesus Christ distinct from women within the royal priesthood of all believers.
In contrast, Protestants treat lay and ordained vocations as functionally distinct but sacramentally indistinguishable. (Partly this constituted an overreaction to a medieval Catholic failure rightly to honor the common priesthood, though it is more directly a result of the Protestant conviction that only baptism and the Eucharist are “Dominical” — instituted by the Lord.) Marriage, likewise, ceased to be viewed sacramentally. On top of that, the loss of celibacy as a meaningful vocation led to the expectation that virtually all will marry — meaning that all Christians should expect to inhabit the role of husband or wife eventually. Moreover, if Protestants in general have an insufficient understanding of the Church, evangelical ecclesiology is practically non-existent. For many, the Church is little more than a spiritual support group for the individual’s personal relationship to Jesus.
Whereas Catholic theology suggests that ordination (and marriage) sacramentally transforms the ordinand into a priest (and the bride and bridegroom into husband and wife), Protestant theology can only envision a change in roles amongst fundamentally uniform Christians. The Church’s “eyes” and “hands” (1 Cor. 12) cease to be diverse and interdependent “members” of one sacramental organism; rather, they are interchangeable organisms participating in a unified-but-uniform colony. It seems inevitable in this case that, shifting the metaphor, the specific and distinct iconography of marriage and ordination will “bleed over” into the royal priesthood of all believers. Within this flattened imaginary, the soteriological concerns raised by McGowin and Witt are legitimate. If variation within the Body of Christ basically consists of functional distinctions between uniform members, then excluding women from the ministerial priesthood and claiming that wives cannot iconographically represent Christ in marriage does have soteriological implications. In that case, women really are reduced to a second-class salvation in which they might escape the fires of hell but will not achieve the glorified heights of men.
Though far more ecclesiologically nuanced than Wayne Grudem, McGowin and Witt nevertheless presume a uniform or univocal iconographic significance, as though reflecting the image of Christ is an all-or-nothing matter. According to them, one cannot bear Christ’s image in baptism while being ineligible to bear Christ’s image as priest. But, biblically speaking, there simply are sacramental distinctions to iconography. Genesis 1:26 teaches that all bear the image of God in creation — but only the baptized bear it soteriologically. And while Galatians 3:28 affirms the soteriological irrelevance of sex difference, we must reject readings suggesting that maleness and femaleness are wholly irrelevant in Christ (as Wesley Hill beautifully argues, though not in relation to women’s ordination, which he supports). The Catholic sacramental theology outlined above makes the best sense of this biblical data.
Perhaps we should think of ordination as an essential accident, if you will, in relation to salvation. Baptism and Holy Eucharist are directly essential — “generally necessary to salvation” (1928 BCP, 292). Salvation depends upon ordination indirectly, insofar as the salvific means of grace found in the Eucharist depends upon ordination — and yet it is by no means necessary for any particular person to be ordained in order to be saved.
Catholics sometimes stop with the bare fact that the priest stands in persona Christi, affirming but not explaining the necessity of visual correspondence in iconographic representation. In many ways, this reticence is admirable. The existence of the male priesthood in Scripture and in the tradition of the Church is far clearer than any particular reason for it, despite Witt’s claims about a tradition of misogyny. And given that many attempts to work out the significance end in patently unbiblical and heterodox territory, perhaps such silence is prudent. It is also appealing in the current cultural climate — affirming a bare correspondence does not require riskier counter-cultural proclamations about masculinity and femininity.
Nevertheless, our responsibility is to reason from the given images of Scripture towards life-giving theology. Especially in this time of deep and profound confusion about embodied sexuality, the Church owes to the world an account of the significance of sexuality, including its relevance to ordination. Furthermore, to stop at mere resemblance honors the data of Scripture, but it risks making Scripture seem arbitrary. And so, cautiously and with due regard for the possibility of error, I will push on to consider tentative and provisional explanations for the significance of maleness and masculinity in the priesthood — after explaining the shortcomings of other common explanations.
In the first place, very few claims about a supposedly biblical masculinity are persuasive. While we can see in Christ’s words and actions how he fulfills the particular typologies of prophet, priest, and king, it is exceedingly difficult to identify what might be uniquely masculine in his words and deeds without importing our pre-existing prejudices about masculinity into the texts. We can certainly say that everything Christ does is appropriate for and consistent with authentic masculinity. A perfect man may weep (Jn. 11:35), thirst (Jn 19:28), rely upon women to fund his ministry (Lk. 8:1-3), chase exploitative capitalists with whips (Jn. 2:15), and walk on water (Mt. 14:22-33) — but we cannot assume that any or all of these are necessary and constituent parts of a successful masculinity per se.
Nor are broader arguments about symbolic significance often compelling. Fr. Thomas Hopko argues that men bear a kind of “male symbolic priority” by which a man is able to represent the whole human species — in contradistinction to women, who cannot achieve this kind of gender neutrality or, rather, inclusivity (Hopko 1999 143-146; discussed in Witt 274-277). This does have some degree of exegetical support, given the notion that Adam in Genesis 2, Romans 5, and 1 Corinthians 11 can be seen as representing the whole of humanity (see also Matthew Colvin’s elaboration of the argument). Witt himself affirms the theory’s plausibility, in a roundabout way. “If one already knows ahead of time,” he writes,
‘that the priest must be male because he acts in persona Christi and that representation demands a masculine physical resemblance, then one might find oneself reading the passages from Genesis, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians in that light to suggest a normative male representative function in those passages; but apart from that prior assumption, there is no reason to do so’ (276).
Of course, the conditional “if” describes our situation precisely: Scripture presents us with a male priesthood, and so we reason on the basis of that data. Nevertheless, it does not seem necessary for men as men to bear a representative role. To the extent that Adam stands for all of humanity, he does so not because he is male but simply because he is first (in Genesis 2) — and, we eventually come to see, because he is a type of Christ, who is the true human (adam/anthropos/homo). Perhaps husbands in marriage and priests in the liturgy participate iconographically in that inclusive representative function, but linking representation to maleness as such seems a stretch. Furthermore, as the Roman Catholic theologian Sister Sara Butler (M.S.B.T.) points out, “The Catholic tradition asserts that either a man or a woman can represent humanity as a whole” (Butler 514) — basing her argument in part on the typology of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the New Eve, whose “fiat” to God’s will symbolically reverses Eve’s capitulation to the serpent.
More doubtful still is Fr. Hopko’s older argument suggesting that the Holy Spirit is related to the Church, such that the Christ-husbands-priests association is balanced by a Spirit-wives-laity iconography (see Hopko 1983, 106-113, 130-133, 186-187). As Ware points out, this view lacks any real biblical support, and the patristic attestations are so few and far between as to underline its eccentricity (Ware 1999, 19-20). Hopko dropped this line of reasoning from his 1999 essay.
Another popular notion links the male priesthood to the biblical masculinity of God. (As Witt acknowledges, God is exclusively identified in masculine language and imagery. Even the supposed exceptions in which God is described in feminine terms actually prove the rule — they are invariably similes of comparison [God “will cry out like a woman in labor,” Is. 42:14] rather than metaphors of identification and naming. Obviously God is not anatomically male in his divinity, but Witt’s own explanation fails to satisfy. In his telling God’s fatherhood conveys generic relationality; God’s particular masculinity is not so much analogical as arbitrary [251-253].) Some argue that the Fatherhood of God expresses a transcendent paternity over creation in contradistinction to the immanent maternity conveyed in goddess worship. Male priests, so the argument goes, implicitly remind us that our theistic, masculine God creates outside of himself and is distinct from his creation, whereas priestesses implicitly shape us to worship a pantheistic, feminine Goddess who brings life into being within herself (255; cf. Colvin; Mascall 1980, 149-151). Whatever we might say about how this distinction maps onto broader religious patterns of monotheism and pantheism, Witt correctly points out that neither the Bible nor the early Church ever conceives of God as the “Father” of creation. To the contrary, creedal orthodoxy clearly distinguishes between God’s paternal begetting of our Lord Jesus Christ and his creative making of the world (256-257). Ironically, casting God as the Father of his creation does not emphasize his transcendence but undermines it — by implying the very ontological equality of God and creation which the Nicene fathers were at pains to reserve only to the Son and the Holy Spirit. I previously noted that Wayne Grudem and some other Protestants ended up resorting to dubious Trinitarian theology in their zeal to defend complementarianism; Catholics ought not make similar errors in order to explain the male priesthood.
The related notion of a kind of masculine initiative and feminine receptivity (argued by Peter Kreeft among others) is less creedally troubling and more typologically fitting, so long as we do not falsely conflate receptivity with passivity. We do see receptivity supremely instantiated in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s fiat (Lk. 1:38), which is itself anticipated in Ruth’s “whatever you say to me, I will do,” and is echoed by notions of the wife’s iconographic submission in Ephesians 5. Add to that the resonances with biological sexuality — specifically, the means by which male and female unite procreatively — and there does seem to be something to this notion.
My hesitance lies mostly with the other half of the equation — the insistence on masculine initiative. Or perhaps it is better to say that my concern lies with attempts to baptize male assertiveness in a manner only tenuously connected to biblical theology. There is initiative within a cruciform and biblical masculinity, but it is initiative towards sacrifice.
Sacrificial Masculinity and the Bible
On its face, the idea that sacrifice is particularly associated with men in Scripture seems absurd. After all, the women of Scripture are consistently presented as sacrificial, in the colloquial use of the term — whereas the men are distinctly not. As we will shortly see, Eve is “sacrificed” on the altar of Adam’s cowardice. She is the first in a long list of female victims of male cruelty, indifference, and selfishness in Scripture: Lot’s daughters (Gen. 19:8), Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Gen. 34), Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen. 38), the incomparably horrifying story of the Levite’s concubine (Jgs. 19-21), David’s daughter Tamar (2 Sam. 13), and a litany of others. Each of these women pays a price for the sins of men, plural. In each instance, they are wronged by hostile sins of commission and by passive sins of omission. Indeed, they are identified above in relation to the men who failed to protect them through cowardice, selfishness, or both. We can add to that list the multiple times that Abraham and Isaac chose to protect themselves from the threat of powerful men at the expense of their wives — Sarah in Genesis 12 and 20, Rebeccah in Genesis 26.
In addition to the picture of women “sacrificed” by cowardly or indifferent men, Scripture is full of women who voluntarily make incredible sacrifices: the aforementioned selflessness of Ruth, Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to the Lord (1 Sam. 1-2), Esther’s courageous risking of her life for her people, and, above all, our Lady’s fiat, which came at great cost — “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Lk. 2:35).
But when we shift from this colloquial use of “sacrifice” and look instead at that to which the metaphor refers — literal, cultic sacrifice — we find a different story. From Genesis to Revelation, the whole Bible tightly associates cultic sacrifice with the priesthood, and, as we have seen, the biblical priesthood is unvaryingly male.
With this broader biblical typology of male failure and female suffering in mind, let us take another look at the story of Adam, the first husband and priest. The two verbs describing Adam’s task in the Garden of Eden are often translated “to work” and “take care” (Gen. 2:15). When paired elsewhere in the Old Testament, these are almost exclusively used to describe the job of Levitical priests in the Temple (see G. K. Beale’s essay; Bergsma 8-28; Johnson 121-122). The story of Solomon — an Adamic figure through-and-through — confirms this insight further. Solomon’s wisdom is pointedly displayed not only in writing poems and proverbs but also in speaking “of trees... [and] of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes” (1 Kgs. 4:33; cf. Genesis 2:19-20). And as with Adam, but in more concretely explicit terms, Solomon enacts a priestly role in the Temple — the construction and dedication of which are described as a kind of recreation of the cosmos (as we noted last time; see Leithart, 48-82; Solomon’s grievous failure, like Adam’s, directly relates to his failure to protect the right worship of God from profanation). Priesthood — whether that of the Levites, or of Jesus Christ himself, or of the Church — is primarily dedicated to blessing and sacrifice. In what ways is Adam’s priesthood sacrificial?
The Roman Catholic biblical scholar John Bergsma points out that the first bloodshed in Scripture is not Cain killing Abel, nor even the provision of animal skins for Adam and Eve after the curse. (For this and what follows, see Bergsma 21-28, Beale, and Pitre, 110-112.) Rather, it is implicit in God’s surgical creation of the woman from the man’s side — “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh!” — after which God closes up the man’s flesh (Gen 2:21-23). In other words, Adam’s bride Eve is built from his side amidst a bloody sacrifice, anticipating our Lord’s sacrifice on Calvary. In the crucifixion, Jesus Christ’s side is opened, out of which flow water and blood — symbols of baptism and the Eucharist, which constitute the Church.
Adam’s “sacrifice” in Genesis 2 and our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross stand in stark contrast to Adam’s failed sacrifice in Genesis 3. The verb translated “take care” in Genesis 2:15 literally means “to guard,” and when applied to Levitical priests, it refers to their duty to guard the Temple from threat and profanation. Genesis 3 reveals the threat to that primordial Holy of Holies, the Garden of Eden: the serpent. The tempter does not arrive in the form of a fluffy rabbit to wile Eve through cuteness but rather as a mortal threat. Eve’s convoluted back-and-forth with the serpent suggests that Adam failed to communicate God’s warnings correctly (Eve not having yet been created when God conveyed the warning to Adam). Nor does Adam clarify the matter in the moment of threat and temptation, even though Genesis 3:6 suggests he was present (“she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her” [ESV, emphasis added]). Instead of intervening, Adam watches his wife eat and then, seeing that despite God’s warning she does not appear to have died, Adam eats. As St. Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 2:14 (ESV), “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived.” Whatever that contested verse’s other implications, it means that Adam willfully enters into sin. Adam fails as priest and husband. He first fails to declare God’s word rightly, and then he passively watches as the Holy of Holies is profaned and his wife falls into sin. Rather than interposing his body between the serpent and his wife in an act of sacrifice, Adam sacrifices his wife on the altar of his own cowardice and selfishness. By the time Eve commits the first sin of commission, Adam has already implicitly committed at least one sin of omission. Like so many other Old Testament women, Eve is abandoned in the moment of crisis.
There are a few exceptions to the litany of male violence and cowardice in the Old Testament. Hannah’s husband Elkanah comes to mind (1 Sam. 1-2), along with the prophets Hosea and Elijah (the latter specifically in his treatment of the widow of Zarephath of 1 Kgs. 17). Still, these are relatively marginal exceptions to an otherwise unrelentingly grim picture. The Old Testament is unflinching in its portrayal of male violence against women and unsparing in its depiction of male cowardice. One almost begins to wonder whether there are any women who have not been both assaulted by hostile men and abandoned or exploited by the cowardly men of their own families. The Old Testament narrative cries out for men who will neither violently assault nor cravenly abandon women — who will honor their dignity and, at the moment of threat, will risk flesh and blood for their sake.
If you have internalized this narrative, St. Joseph’s appearance in the first chapter of Matthew comes as a sharp, clean shock. Of course, his care for the Blessed Virgin Mary also anticipates that of her Son, Jesus Christ, who repeatedly upholds the dignity of women, who stands between angry men and vulnerable women, and whose last act is to ensure his mother’s care after his death. As Brant Pitre argues in Jesus and the Bridegroom, virtually all of these allegorically reflect Jesus’ husbandly regard for the Church — giving his own flesh as a sacrifice to redeem, regenerate, and transform her. (This allegorical association in no way detracts from his literal, historical compassion and care — his love for the Church and his regard for women are of a piece.) And just as Genesis describes Adam as husband and priest, the Gospel of John is particularly clear in identifying Christ as simultaneously priest and bridegroom. (For instance, Pitre shows how “the seamless garment of Jesus… is strikingly evocative of the ‘tunic’… worn by the ancient Jewish high priest” — and that the contemporaneous practice at the time was to vest a Jewish groom in just such priestly garb on the day of his wedding [Pitre 105-109].)
Behind the Christological iconography of Ephesians 5, then, lies this contrast between the bridegroom and high priest, Jesus Christ, and all of the failed men of the Old Testament — and in particular the first husband and priest, Adam. Adam did not love his wife or give himself up for her but sacrificed her for himself. He did not sanctify her but misled her and let her be led astray. And it is against the backdrop of Adam’s selfish failure as husband and as priest that the Christological subversion of worldly masculinity stands out.
Witt agrees that the Incarnation of Jesus as male was “soteriologically fitting” in a “first-century Mediterranean culture.” “Only a male Savior,” Witt says,
‘could challenge and defeat Mediterranean honor culture by voluntarily undergoing the humiliation of death by crucifixion and then conquering death through resurrection. Only a male Savior could meaningfully teach that salvation comes not through domination, but through voluntarily becoming a servant’ (262).
Of course, toxic masculinity is hardly restricted to the first century or the Mediterranean. Male violence is a truly universal problem — stretching back to Genesis, spanning the globe today, and encompassing every culture that has ever existed. (Witt acknowledges as much about all preindustrial agrarian societies; see 69-71, 338-340, and his blog post; Beth Allison Barr applies the condemnation to “human civilization” as such  while identifying civilization with agriculture.) In other words, there has never been a society in which it would not have been typologically fitting for Jesus Christ to become incarnate as a male. We begin to see why it is likewise typologically fitting for the apostles to be male. They, like Christ, are called to rule through service. Like husbands in Christian marriage, they too must become signs of the Church’s reimagined hierarchy.
Hierarchy and Order in the Church
It is easy to misconstrue Christ’s revolutionary exercise of authority as a denial of authority. Indeed, Witt betrays a great discomfort with the apostolic authority invested in the apostles by Jesus Christ. As we close this conversation with Witt’s Icons of Christ about sex difference and ordination, it is therefore fitting to reflect on just what cruciform authority looks like in the Church.
Witt betrays some inconsistency in his description of apostolic authority. In places he suggests that the apostles have no authority at all over other Christians. Power is only ever granted, he says, “in reference to their authority over nonhuman enemies of the gospel [such as demons, unclean spirits, illness, death, the binding and loosing of sin itself], never to human beings” (93). Elsewhere, following Sumner, he seems to describe priestly authority as relevant beyond nonhuman enemies of the gospel but clarifies that it is a “delegated” and “entirely derivative” authority “modeled on [the priest’s] own self-effacement” (232). At the conclusion of the book, he denies that his theology rejects “the notion of authority as such.” Ordained ministry, he claims, “entails a kind of authority, yet an authority re-interpreted through the lens of cruciformity and Christological subversion” and exercised by priests “pointing away from themselves to the crucified Christ.” It is not “an authoritarian permanently hierarchical understanding of authority,” nor is it a “postmodern” rejection of all authority as such (343). In a related endnote, he clarifies that authority is not “coercion or the oppressive use of power” but rather “the delegated responsibility of an individual to act on behalf of a community or a group to get something done.” He compares it to “an Amish farmer who organizes a barn raising” without coercion (412 n33).
Witt supports this qualified authority through his reading of 1 Peter 5:1-4, where, he claims, “the presbyter is specifically forbidden from exercising any domineering top-down authority” (344). While the passage does explicitly reject “domineering” behavior from church leaders (5:3), it is not clear that this refers to “top-down authority” as such. Witt’s doubtful translation of 5:2-3 does not help. In Witt’s rendering, presbyters are told to “shepherd the flock of God among you, not by way of compulsion, but willingly; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not lording it over those in your charge, but being an example to the flock” (343). Presumably Witt interprets the phrase “not by way of compulsion” as instruction not to compel others, but this phrase is better understood as referring to the motives of the presbyter — a reading better aligned with the contrasting adverb (“willingly”), as well as the immediately following contrast (“not for shameful gain, but eagerly”). Many of the major English translations accordingly translate the phrase as something like “not under compulsion, but willingly” (ESV, emphasis added; cf. NASB, NRSV). The NIV’s paraphrastic rendering captures the thrust: “[watch] over them—not because you must, but because you are willing.” Witt further claims that the submission of the young to the elderly (1 Pt. 5:5) “is not top-down hierarchical submission… but the submission of all to each other” (344). To the contrary, here, as with Ephesians 5, we are shown a community characterized by mutual but differentiated submission and self-sacrifice — the young are particularly, though not uniquely, called to submit.
At times, Witt’s resistance to hierarchy and any sort of vertical authority begins to sound less like the kingdom of heaven and a bit more like that dream of some early 20th-century progressive Christians, “the democracy of God” (Richard Gamble 204) — a non-hierarchical community of horizontal job specialization, in which the only authority is that of persuasion and example. This is not faithful to the biblical model, in which order, hierarchy, and authority are redefined — but not undone. Jesus’ declaration of the last being first represents an inversion of order but not its elimination, just as the motif of the reversal of fortunes throughout Scripture — for example, the prayers of Hannah (1 Sam. 2) and the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1) or the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16) — does not undo order but reverses it. What Christopher C. Roberts writes of Karl Barth could apply to Jesus’s own approach to order: Christ seems to reveal “a type of theological hierarchy that turns normal, nontheological hierarchies upside down, in which the first are last and the last are first but in which there is still order” (Roberts 196).
We should also be cautious about how we construe reversal. Although the aforementioned examples — not to mention some of the Psalms — could be construed to envision a world in which the oppressor and oppressed simply switch roles, in the greater canonical context and supremely in the life and teaching of Jesus himself we find not only the startling reversal of first-and-last but also the very redefinition of “firstness,” such that being first begins to look a lot like how the world conceives of being last. As Roberts writes of St. Augustine, “In ordinary, fallen life, it may indeed be that we experience only hierarchies that are exploitative and self-interested, but Augustine explains that this sort of hierarchy is not what he finds in Ephesians 5.... This sexual difference upends natural hierarchies and replaces them with hierarchies that press the ‘superior’ to greater deeds of love” (Roberts 66).
Witt, of course, knows that Jesus retains an unquestioned top-down authority, even amidst his humility, but he attempts to divide Christ in two, asking us to imitate the Christ of humility but not the Christ of power. In Ephesians 5, Witt claims, Christians are called to model themselves not on “Christ in glory (Christ Pantokrator), but the self abasement of the crucified Christ who voluntarily took up the role of a servant, who loved the church and gave himself up for it” (111). Thus, he says, Ephesians 5 “undermines” “the authority of the paterfamilias” — which is true insofar as it refers to the disorders of “ancient Mediterranean culture” (105). But the Christ of power is the Christ of humility. As Mascall writes, Christ’s “divine dignity is not diminished but manifested” in his humiliation: “when he stands before Pilate, it is he, not Pilate, that is the judge; when he is nailed to the Cross, he is reigning from the tree” (Mascall 2017 52). St. Paul’s gesture towards Christ does not deny husbandly authority but dramatically redefines it as cruciform self-sacrifice.
Likewise, the hierarchy of the Church does not manifest as a humility lacking in power and authority but rather as an authority characterized by humility. The modern world has so flattened human relations into power struggle that we can no longer conceive of an authority that is anything other than brute physical compulsion — the strong over the weak, the many over the few, or the armed over the unarmed. Witt rejects the bankruptcy of this notion of authority, and he suggests we imitate Christ through the persuasive power of moral example and the upside-down authority of self-abnegation. And so we should. But this does not do full justice to the authority of Christ nor that delegated to his apostles: apostolic authority is not simply the power of persuasive example. Nor is it brute, physical coercion, though the Church has certainly proven herself anything but immune from the temptation of physical coercion. The Church is a sacramental organism, constituted by the grace of God, and we should expect her authority and indeed coercion to match her nature.
The Sacramental Authority of the Church
We see apostolic authority at work throughout St. Paul’s epistles but perhaps most explicitly in his letter to Philemon. Witt notes that St. Paul is “requesting” something of Philemon (implicitly the emancipation of the returned slave Onesimus), and Witt cites the passage in which St. Paul proclaims his confidence in Philemon’s “obedience” (115-116) — but Witt omits the immediately preceding clause in which St. Paul asserts, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required” (Philem. 8, ESV). The rest of the letter is an example of persuasive and exemplary influence, but St. Paul here implies that he has the authority not merely to persuade but to compel.
This cannot be physical compulsion — St. Paul had no legions of soldiers ready to enforce his will. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul shows us precisely how the Church exercises this authority: “Drive out the wicked person from among you,” he says (1 Cor. 5:13, ESV). This is the power of excommunication. It is not the brute lethality of the state, but, if we understand the true significance of sacramental union with Jesus Christ, we can see that it is far more deadly than any power of any army on earth. The same quality of authority is at work in the binding and loosing which Christ gave to his apostles. Contra Witt, this is not only a power over sin. It is also a power over sinners — given not to extort or manipulate but for their good, to compel sinners to true repentance and amendment of life. Nor is the sacramental authority of the Church restricted to what we might think of as merely “spiritual” rather than “worldly” matters. Just after the instruction to excommunicate in 1 Corinthians 5, St. Paul criticizes the Corinthians for taking lawsuits to non-Christian courts instead of going before the saints. “Do ye not know,” he says — his tone suggesting that he is utterly flabbergasted — “that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?” (1 Cor. 6:1-2).
Ecclesial authority can be and has been abused, but the potential for abuse is inherent to authority. We can and should put guardrails around this authority, and we should exercise wisdom in discerning who has the character and maturity to exercise it. What we may not do, as stewards of the mysteries of God, is cast aside this authority simply because it is too great for us. It is too great for us. This is why, to exercise it well, we need the grace of God, most directly conveyed in the sacrament of holy orders, but also through all the other channels and means of grace available to the Christian. It is precisely the scope and power of ecclesial authority that demands cruciform, Christocentric humility. As Christ himself explains in Luke 22, the reason his apostles must be servants is precisely because they will rule:
‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth. Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations. And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Lk. 22:25-30).
If we are not sure whether we are hearing Jesus and St. Paul accurately, we look to the reception history of ecclesiological authority — where, once again, we see the costs of Witt’s position. In order to uphold an authority purely of persuasion without any “top-down hierarchy,” we must say that the Church got things completely wrong pretty much from the start — at least ever since St. Ignatius of Antioch demanded that Christians obey their bishops a mere decade or two after the completion of the New Testament canon (and long before the Church’s full recognition of that canon).
Male-Female Difference in Late Modernity
As Matthew Colvin points out, women in premodern societies needed the physical, tangible protection of men. This was not due to paternalistic misogyny or prejudicial sexism but was a basic fact of biological reality, rooted not only in physiological differences of bone and musculature but even more so in the vulnerability of pregnancy, childbirth, and the nursing of infants. In light of Witt’s oft-cited litany of agrarian horrors, we might celebrate the fact that modern technology has considerably narrowed the lethality gap between men and women. Should we do so, though, we must be quite clear about what it is that we are celebrating — specifically, the astonishing lethality of modern technology. Now anyone who can pull a trigger can kill, and anyone who can push a button can kill by the thousands. Bodily equality has been nearly achieved — through the increased ease of bodily violence.
I am increasingly convinced that much of what ails contemporary America flows from a culture-wide failure to love creation — and our own bodies. We see this failure very clearly in the hot-button cultural issues of our day, including ideologies which deny the givenness — the gift — of created bodies. But, if we want to recapture a Christian vision for embodied sexuality and its relation to ordination, we need to see the bigger picture.
The bigger picture is that God so loves human flesh that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The bigger picture is that Satan hates human flesh and indeed all of creation. His hatred surfaces in all cultural practices which distort the gifts of creation, and in all of the ways we fail to love and cherish ourselves and each other as embodied creatures. Satan’s hatred is present every time unrealistic and unhealthy bodies are presented to us as desirable to possess and necessary to pursue. It is present in vast swaths of the Internet dedicated to the exploitation, objectification, and degradation of human bodies. It is present in our catastrophic relationships with food — in eating disorders and in gluttony and in food systems that depend on waste and excess. It is present in America’s long-standing epidemics of self-harm, suicide, and drug abuse. It is present in the physical ease of homicide in the late-modern West. And it is most vividly, viciously, and tragically present in the wreckage of tiny human corpses all across this country — in the legalized, sanitized, and privatized slaughter of millions of the most vulnerable human bodies in our society.
These ailments of the past half-century or so are themselves manifestations of an older disregard for creation. It is no coincidence that all of this body hate emerges from an economy and a culture that has spent centuries consuming and destroying so much of God’s good creation without a second thought, as though the mandate to subdue the earth were a matter of destroying it rather than of cultivating it as a garden.
Obviously — and to preempt a bad-faith misreading — women’s ordination is not responsible for these maladies, nor should we delude ourselves into thinking the catastrophes of contemporary America would be averted or reversed merely by affirming male-only ordination. In the abstract, good theology cannot resolve human sin and frailty — but bad theology will certainly make things worse. More to the point, the plausibility of women’s ordination rests upon a culture which has diminished and dismissed embodiment, as Witt’s own narrative suggests. Whatever benefits we accrue through this flattening of male-female difference flow from the triumph of technological know-how over the contours and limitations of human bodies. To retain the Church’s historic practice, then, constitutes a faithful rebellion against our late-modern disembodiment and a renewed embrace of our mutual and interdependent divine blessing — to be fruitful and multiply and to cultivate the earth as a garden.
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The fact of male priesthood in the Bible and in tradition is clearer than any particular reason for it, and the iconographic significance of bare visual correspondence is, in turn, better grounded than any theological explanation for why this correspondence matters. While nevertheless a tentative proposal, the most plausible explanation proceeds from the centrality of sacrifice to the priesthood and the intimate biblical relation between priestly and husbandly sacrifice. From Genesis through St. Paul, the Bible tightly associates the husband’s duty to his wife with sacrifice, both implicitly and explicitly — initially through Adam, the first husband and priest, and supremely in Jesus, the Church’s Bridegroom and High Priest. While all Christians reflect Jesus Christ in the order of salvation, and all are called to live lives of sacrifice and submission, there are different instantiations of Christological iconography. Within the sacramental vocations of marriage and ordination, husbands and priests have respective duties of sacrifice. The husband gives himself up for his wife as a living icon of cruciform sacrifice. The priest celebrates Christ’s own Eucharistic sacrifice and gives himself up for the Church. In keeping with the model of the prototype, Jesus Christ, these sacrificial postures do not imply a lack of authority but rather the radical redefinition of it.
The Church has always been a countercultural witness, and nowhere is the conflict between the world and the Church more apparent than in the Christocentric notion of leadership as service and of authority as self-sacrifice. The Church has always had to express and embody a cruciform authority that is unbelievable to the world, and it has always been called to resist the temptations and distortions of worldly power. This is no less the case today than it was two thousand years ago.
At the same time, we face new challenges — new cultural norms and assumptions which render the Church’s message freshly implausible to the world. For even as our world continues to embrace the tyranny of the powerful over the weak, our culture also exudes a powerful suspicion of all forms of authority and coercion. Whereas before the Church had to fight constantly against the temptation to use power in worldly ways, we must now also resist the temptation to abdicate authority altogether. Likewise, we face new forms of the old serpent’s hatred of human flesh — new challenges to the goodness of embodied, created reality which make the restriction of ordination to some men and no women both unthinkable and unconscionable.
Each of these — abuse of power, suspicion of authority, and rejection of embodiment — presents a distinct challenge to the plausibility of the Bible’s vision of the priesthood. The Christian priest bears an authority characterized by a self-sacrifice foreign to the world and yet no less powerful than any worldly tyrant. The Christian priest bears witness to the goodness and significance of sex difference, while maintaining that all Christians, irrespective of sex, are salvifically united without distinction in Jesus Christ. If we would resist the temptation to “disembody” our own faith; if we would push back against Satanic body hate, rebellion, and tyranny; if we would convert the world to Christ — then we must begin by persuading ourselves that what Jesus offers in Scripture and in the Church is life-giving.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.