The risen Christ revealed himself first to a woman, Mary Magdalene. Considering that a woman’s testimony was discounted in a Jewish court of law, this in itself weighs against the charge that the post-Easter accounts were fabricated by the Jerusalem church which was predominantly Jewish. Further, Mary is commissioned by the risen Christ to share this news with the rest of the disciple-community. This makes her the first of the apostles (by customary apostolic criteria). Isn’t this just one of the many ways the Gospel subverts the values and practices of the world?
How tragic, then, that this egalitarian, socially subversive movement centered on the worship of a crucified Jew so quickly morphed into yet another “religion,” with all the conventional religious trappings including a professional male priesthood, a two-tier spirituality and sacred buildings. This was the first betrayal of the gospel by the church, and it continues to the present day.
Traditional Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have taught an ontological, as opposed to a functional, understanding of priesthood that is closely linked to their view of the Eucharist. The maleness of Jesus is then given priority in a process of reasoning unconvincing to the rest of us. But, at least, it is practiced consistently.
What is more remarkable, however, is the way several (but not all) self-styled “conservative evangelicals” pay lip-service to the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers while reserving pastoral leadership to males. Clericalism is rife in these circles, perhaps more so than in RC churches. Gifted, highly educated women in the congregation can be professors in universities and seminaries, politicians, business CEOs, doctors, lawyers, judges, and so on. But they cannot be ordained as priests/pastors, and some churches even refuse to let them into the pulpit.
This inconsistent behavior is justified on the grounds of being faithful to a “creation principle,” and this in turn is deduced from two of the most obscure verses in the apostle Paul’s letters (1 Tim. 2:12 and 1 Cor.14:34). They are obscure because, if taken as timeless instructions, they not only contradict other sayings in the same letters in which they appear but also the apostle’s and the early churches’ actual practice (see, e.g., Romans 16). While plausible explanations of these verses are readily found in the scholarly commentaries, nobody knows for sure what historical circumstances lie behind the apostolic instructions. (The injunctions to women to “listen and learn” in both texts seem to indicate a situation of ignorance, arrogance, or both.)
In the face of such interpretive difficulties, a responsible hermeneutic works with what is clear in Scripture, and suspends judgment on what is obscure. So, it is ironic, not to say tragic, that those who are most vocal about “living under biblical authority” should choose to exclude over half of the church’s membership from ever exercising their leadership gifts simply because of their gender—and to do so on the basis of two of the least understood verses in the canon of Scripture!
Moreover, if one sincerely believes that these texts teach an eternal “creation order” or “creation principle,” then one cannot limit their application to positions and roles within the church. They apply to all of creational life. Christian women should be forbidden any such leadership roles in society, and Christian men taught that they should not submit to female authority in their workplaces.
However, consistency is not what the church has been noted for throughout its history. Traditional apologetics has been an all-male affair, and targeted at males. Women and others on the social margins have been more aware of the mismatch between the church’s proclamation and its internal practices; and this has been the biggest obstacle to faith, not arguments drawn from science or philosophy.
I am amazed at the patience shown by many intelligent women in male-led churches. Some, of course, vote with their feet and join other local churches or leave the church altogether. Some remain but find their fulfillment ministering in secular occupations and parachurch organizations. But there are also large numbers of women who have been socialized from a young age into accepting as “biblical” their exclusion from leadership and preaching. They are among the fiercest defenders of the status quo. You will not find many intelligent converts from non-Christian backgrounds among them.
Differences between men and women do not translate into different “roles,” but different ways of performing the same tasks. Contrary to popular opinion, nowhere does the Bible prescribe timeless, trans-cultural male and female “roles.” Nor does it envisage a one-man model of church leadership. Those “conservative evangelicals” who take these practices for granted show just how selectively they read their Bibles. None of the lists of spiritual gifts that Paul gives in various letters are gender-specific. If the Holy Spirit has gifted certain women with gifts of preaching or leadership, clearly He expects them to use them for the good of us all. As long as we suppress those gifts, we deprive ourselves of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and deny His universality.
Some male clergy/pastors who accept the above arguments still prefer to wrong the women in their congregations rather than offend a few vocal males, and especially male colleagues in other churches whose approval they fear losing. Churches ruled by the politics of fear and shame are loveless places, desperate for Christ-like leadership.