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Published Date: April 30, 2020

Published Date: April 30, 2020

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Women Priests and the Image of God

In this article, I examine the reasons that C. S. Lewis, a Christian apologist, Anglican layman, and medieval scholar, used to argue against women as Anglican priests, as well as the traditions articulated by Vatican councils that block women from the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. I will begin with Lewis and show how his reasons relate to those of the Catholic hierarchy, who do not use selected passages from the epistles to confine the priesthood to males, but rather the maleness of Christ and twelve of his disciples.

Through both his non-fiction and fiction writings, C. S. Lewis remains an extremely influential apologist for Christianity, even though he died in 1963. The popularity of his imaginative fiction for children and adults continues to grow. His apologetic treatises, such as Mere Christianity, are cogent explanations for the logic of Christianity in its orthodox forms. Lewis writes of his personal conversion in Surprised by Joy, his grief after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, in A Grief Observed, and discusses the problem of pain in his book by that name. The Chronicles of Narnia are his most famous books, and many of us continue to find in them models for increasing our faith and expanding our imaginations in other worlds under God’s care.

 I read all of Lewis’s works in college. I wrote my honor’s project on Lewis, along with other authors who provoked imagination and connected it with the Spirit. Clearly, I respected him and considered him a major mentor from afar. Imagine my dismay upon coming across the essay, “Priestesses in the Church?,” which was first published in 1948 as “Notes on the Way” in Time and Tide Magazine.1 The date 1948 is significant, as is the fact that Lewis was a conservative member of the Church of England, which, at that time, held views about the  similar to those presently held by officials of the Roman Catholic Church.2 Although 1948 was a long time ago, Lewis’s arguments against women priests have been repeated by other Protestants, who extend them to presbyters and ministers.3

“Priestesses in the Church?” reflects the well-documented negative view Lewis held of women for most of his life. Margaret Hannay notes in her article, “C. S. Lewis: Mere Misogyny?,” that he wrote “disparaging remarks about women in his private correspondence” and objected to women studying at Oxford. She quotes a poem he wrote in 1933 with Owen Barfield:

M is the Many, the Moral, the Body,

The Formless the Female, the Thoroughly Shoddy.

      N is Not-Being which sinks even deeper.

      More formless, more female, more footling—and


Hannay points out likely underlying causes of Lewis’s deeply rooted sexism: “Lewis was raised in the sexually segregated English public school system. He had no sister, and his mother died [before] he was ten . . . he had no close friendship with a woman until he was in his fifties. Lewis spent thirty years at Oxford, an establishment well known for its misogyny.”5 I agree with Hannay that given the stature and influence of his fiction and nonfiction, readers need to be aware of his background in order to separate reasoned apologetics from his “personal prejudice against women.”

The woman who altered many aspects of his life, perhaps including his opinion of women in general, appeared—uninvited—on his doorstep in 1952, after she and Lewis had exchanged a series of letters.6 Lewis’s writings reflect a decided change in his attitude toward women after he met and married Joy Davidman.7 Unfortunately, the bulk of his work, including “Priestesses in the Church?,” is pre-Joy. It is impossible to determine if his view of women as priests was modified by his relationship with Joy—or would have been had either lived longer.8 In order to more fully understand and evaluate these arguments against women priests, I will briefly outline the evolution of the Christian priesthood.

The Anglo-Catholic Tradition of the Priesthood

To trace the Christian tradition of the priesthood, we begin with the Hebrew Scriptures that recount the worship practices described within the developing story of Israel. An Israelite priest was set apart for service in matters pertaining to the rituals of worship: cultic service. As the history of Israel progressed, the requirements for the priesthood became more exclusive, but priests were always male. Why were there no women priests in Israel? Patriarchy dominated the eras of oral and written transmission of Scripture texts (and most other eras, as we have seen). Many scholars in the last century have perpetuated the assumption that women were excluded in order to disassociate, in word, symbol, and ritual, the Israelite cult from the sexuality, manipulation, and reenactment of other peoples’ temple practices in the ancient Near East. Although no explicit extra-biblical evidence proves that sex was part of surrounding nations’ temple life, the Bible provides some allusions to this possibility. For example, as Moses prepared the people to enter into formal covenant relation with God by receiving the covenant stipulations, he told them to consecrate themselves and “be ready the third day; do not go near a woman” (Exod 19:15).9 Nonetheless, sacrifice, whether outside or inside the tabernacle or temple, was conceived to perpetuate patriarchy and patriliny (legal kinship ties among males and their possession and transference of property). This is the most significant reason for not having women priests in ancient Israel.

Where does the institution of priesthood first come into the Church? According to Heb 4–10, Jesus was the only individual who assumed the role of priest as the initiator of the Jesus movement. His sacrifice rendered Israel’s cultic priesthood obsolete. First Peter 2:9–10 shows that the priesthood of all believers was a foundational NT concept.10 Galatians 3:28 emphasizes that there is no exclusion or division in Christ: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).

In other words, in the earliest Church there was no formal style of ritual with an ordained individual leading and performing and mediating the people’s concerns and repentance to God, which was the role of the priest in Israel. Early church communities set apart individuals as apostles, witnesses, teachers, and missionaries. In the second century, the individual bishop began to be viewed as a representative of the Church.11 The Christian priestly hierarchy came later as further organization, rituals, forms, formalities, and authorities were deemed necessary. The NT teaching that believers were equally priests to one another was lost.12

One explanation for the shift from a Church of equality to one of hierarchy, ranks, and division can be found in The Didache, a second century Syrian Church discipline manual, which identified prophets as the Church’s high priests (13.3). According to William Spencer, this ended the priesthood of all believers, because another high priest—the prophet—was instituted on earth. The Didache (15.1) further restricts this office to males despite the fact that early in the second century the governor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, had found it necessary to torture two female ministers (Latin ministrae) in order to gain more information from them about the activities of Christians (Letters of Pliny X.96).13 Spencer says that the inevitable results of restricting women rebounded on all believers who were thereby discouraged from exercising their spiritual gifts. A high regard of public opinion and worries over Church purity caused the Church of the third century to greatly reduce the expression of spiritual gifts.14

In the third century, bishops were referred to as high priests for the first time. Coupled with the elevation of the bishops in the third and fourth centuries was the reinterpretation of the Eucharist, which came to be viewed as a reenactment of the sacred drama of the crucifixion. The Roman Catholic Church linked the priest performing the rite to Christ and maintained that even as Christ was a male, the priest must be male in order to most closely identify with Christ. J. I. Packer echoed this view in 1991: “that one male is best represented by another male is a matter of common sense.”15 However, the Italian researcher Giorgio Otranto has claimed that there were some women priests in the first five or six centuries of the Church. He discovered a letter from fifth-century Pope Gelasius which admonished bishops to encourage women to “officiate at the sacred altars and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex.”16

In medieval Christian theology, Christ continued to move from a place of immanence to a place of transcendence. Priests fulfilled this need for earthly mediators by assuming the twin roles of bringing sacrifice for sin to God and bringing God’s grace to the people through the consecrated host. Mary came to be viewed as a mediator for the Church in this period as well.

The sixteenth-century reformers protested, among other things, the institution of the priesthood, its hierarchical exclusiveness, and the various abuses of power and control that prevailed. Protestants rejected priesthood and sacrifices and restored the concept of the priesthood of individual believers. Thus, Roman Catholics continued to stress that the priesthood of Christ must be taken over by the priesthood of the ordained man, while Protestants recognized the priesthood of all individual believers. Even so, the reformers had no interest in women ministers, leaders, and co-workers as known in the earliest Church. Neither tradition stressed the priesthood of the corporate Church, the early second-century concept of Christian priesthood.17 Later Protestant sects, which arose emphasizing the ever-present, impartial activity of God through the Holy Spirit, did not restrict women ministering until they too became institutionalized and hierarchical. However, even the charismatic movements became more male-controlled and hierarchical as they became more established.

The Protestant minister generally symbolizes Christ only to the degree that all Christians through faith and baptism are part of Christ’s body, united with Christ. Through ordination, the Church recognizes the individual’s gifts, call, and training and orders her or him to gather, to lead, and to pray. Protestants who restrict women from ordination hold reasons that differ from the Roman Catholics and Anglicans who, like Lewis, see the male priest as a symbol of a male Christ.18

As a traditional Anglican, Lewis espoused a case against women priests similar to that of the present Roman Catholic Church, albeit not identical. According to the Vatican document of 1976, “Inter Insigniores,” the priest is image, sign, and representation of Christ before God. Therefore, a man must fill that role because Jesus was male. The authors claim a mysterious bond uniting Christ, maleness, and the priesthood. The mystery of Christ and the Church is indissolubly bound up with the unfathomable mystery of humans as male and female. The Church, then,

has no authority to institute a change in the order of ministry of the sort required for the ordination of women to the priesthood. . . . The priestly office cannot be changed by human, social progress, for it belongs to another order of reality . . . revealed finally in Christ . . . who, being himself a man, chose men and only men to be his apostles. The Church must be faithful to the example of her Lord. She cannot, therefore, consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.19

Sex, according to “Inter Insigniores,” is a more important category than age or race. The Roman Catholic Church says that sex transcends other categories because of the relationship between Christ and the priest: “The Church does not consider sexual differentiation to be the same as cultural, ethnic or racial difference. . . . The priest is the sacramental symbol of Christ. . . . [It] relies on the natural symbolism of gender to signify the relationship between the priest and Christ, the head and bridegroom of the Church.”20 Thus, it is proper, for example, for aging Gentile men to fulfill the priestly role even though Jesus was a young Jew.21 Recognizing the Roman Catholic Church’s continuing stance on the matter, we will turn to Lewis’s specific complaints against the Anglicans who were beginning to seek ordination for women in his lifetime.

“Priestesses in the Church?”

Like the 1976 Vatican Council, Lewis considered Christ’s maleness an image of a reality that far transcends other physically defining categories. He insisted in “Priestesses in the Church?” that the fact that Christ was male, coupled with the (then Anglican) Church’s requirement that a priest be male, reflects a reality about the sex of God that transcends other categories, namely that God is the ultimate in masculinity—a claim the Vatican resists making.

To begin his argument, Lewis remarked that the proposed arrangement, women priests, “would make us much more rational but not near so much like a Church,” just as conversation at a ball instead of dancing would be more rational, but “not near so much like a ball.” Lewis explained that having women priests would be more rational, since there is a shortage of priests, since “women can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed to be in the power of men alone,” and since women are not lacking in “piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office.”22

He then attempted to explain why women priests would make the Church less like a Church, recognizing the difficulty of answering this question. “The opposers to women priests at first can produce nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort which they find hard to analyze.”23 His purpose in “Priestesses?” was to interpret this discomfort and distaste. Lewis denied that opposition to women priests stemmed from a contempt for women, “for history makes plain,” he wrote, “that in the Middle Ages the Church carried their reverence of one Woman to a point . . . she became ‘almost a fourth person of the Trinity.’”24 He made this point to underscore that even though Mary was revered, she was never viewed as a priest, which I will discuss next. However, the near deification of Mary in the Middle Ages cannot demonstrate that the Church had no contempt for women. The medieval Church and society did hold women in contempt. They idealized not ordinary women, but an asexual, virginal woman patterned after certain unrealistic ideas that came to surround the mother of Jesus, one of which was that she remain a virgin forever. Although many found comfort in the motherly, mediating, intercessory character of the Church’s Mary, women could not identify with a woman who gave birth yet remained an intact virgin. And neither did the Church see parallels between Mary and ordinary women. Mary so pedestaled did not reflect a valuation of women who were wives and mothers. The elevation of Mary did not mean the status of women was elevated! Virginal women in the Middle Ages gained a measure of freedom and autonomy, but no woman except the Church’s Mary could be the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven.25

Contrary to Lewis’s opinion, the records of the Middle Ages plainly demonstrate that, in Church thought and civil action, women were often held in contempt, persecuted, and killed. Medieval Church law permitted wife-beating as a way to control female corruption and disobedience.26 To medieval theologians, women represented sexuality, sensuality, and the earth. Their presence, their very existence, tempted men from high-minded pursuits. These theologians inherited the views of Greek dualism that male reflected the mind, spirit, and God, but female represented the body, flesh, and the earth.27 Thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, like Aristotle and Augustine before him, believed that females are defective males, the result of male sperm gone awry, caused perhaps by a “damp south wind at conception.” He believed women are dominated by sexual appetite whereas men are ruled by reason.28 The Church’s attempt to eliminate witchcraft through torture and death involved ageism and sexism.29 No elderly recluse accused of witchcraft could hide the appearance of growths and moles on her body, which were certain proof to civil authorities that she nurtured demons.30 Surprisingly, though a respected medievalist, Lewis was insensitive to the sexism of the writers of that era; his own views of women, men, and God were not altered by his scholarly forays into medieval literature and history, but confirmed by them.

Lewis mentioned the reverence for Mary in the Middle Ages in order to emphasize that “a sacerdotal office was never attributed to her,” to claim that even Mary—a woman—could not have, would not have, and should not have functioned in a priestly role.31 This may be true formally, but, for Catholics, Mary functions in the priestly role of mediating on behalf of people to God. Mary has the title “Mediatrix” because of her dual role of speaking to God for people and in bringing God to the people in a way that no male priest ever has, will, or could do: giving birth to Jesus, God embodied! At Medjugorje, a Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mary not only functions as a mediator on behalf of people to God, but she is also viewed as bringing God’s word and grace to the people, the task of the prophet.

Concerning Mary, Lewis also (shockingly) wrote: “she is absent both from the Last Supper and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Such is the record of Scripture.”32 Lewis’s interpretation is both uncommon and mistaken.33 According to Acts 1:12–14, certain women, Mary, Jesus’s brothers, and the other disciples devoted themselves with one accord to prayer in the upper room. A disciple was selected to replace Judas (vv. 15–26), then the Spirit fell when “they were all together in one place.” Peter quoted Joel 2:28–32 to explain the marvelous phenomena that included the Spirit’s falling indiscriminately upon both males and females (Acts 2:14–21). Would not the “certain women” and Mary certainly be included in that “all” since they had just been identified? Women, including Mary, were there, witnessed the descent of, and received the Spirit.

In “Priestesses?,” Lewis himself cited NT references to women preachers of the early Church and he was aware of OT examples of women prophets, spokeswomen for God.34 Here he insists that biblical women were “prophetesses,” not “priestesses.”35 The role of the prophet was to represent God’s values, ideas, perspectives, words to the people of Israel and Judah. Nonetheless, this should not become a basis for ordaining women, in Lewis’s view.

Preaching, teaching, pastoring, leading, prophesying women demonstrate that women are capable and effective in those roles in Lewis’s view! Nonetheless, he goes on to say that, although women can represent the people to God (a priestly role in Israel), they must not represent God to the people (the prophetic role). Here he contradicts himself in being content with biblical women prophets, but confessing: “To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us. . . . We have no objection to a woman doing the first: the whole difficulty is with the second.”36 This means, to Lewis, a woman can represent us to God (as a priest), but not God to us (as a prophet). The Church based the evolving practice of the priesthood in the OT Levitical institution in which the male priest—through various sacrificial rites—represented the people to God. Lewis had no difficulty with a woman doing this. A woman representing God in the role of the prophet was “the whole difficulty” for Lewis.

Unbothered by the contradiction, which may have seemed superficial if he had noticed it, Lewis delves deeper into anthropological and theological matters to find a more profound basis for the exclusively  and for his aversion to women priests. He appeals to the sex of God. For Lewis, “the central thing” was that all priests must image physically the inherent, intrinsic, real, and spiritual masculinity of God. Lewis’s discomfort with women priests writhed not on scriptural patterns, but on his fear that a woman priest may be implicitly showing that “God is like a good woman!” Lewis also feared that we might begin to pray, “Our Mother which art in Heaven,”37 because he believed that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray to “our Father,” he was teaching everyone, everywhere how to speak to God. However, Jesus was not afraid to liken God to a good woman in the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8–10). And many later disciples have found comfort in biblical analogies of God as a nurturing mother and in picturing a motherly image when they pray to God.38

Lewis also worried that the mystical marriage might be reversed, “that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride.”39 He claims: “One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church . . . .”40 By saying that the mystical marriage would be reversed, Lewis mixed the traditional metaphor of the priesthood with the biblical metaphor of marriage used to picture the covenant relationship between God and people. The prophetic marriage metaphor is problematic in Hosea and Ezekiel, but even there, as in other places it is used, the metaphor is combined with many others, such as parent-child, shepherd-sheep, vine and vinedresser—all clearly metaphors to demonstrate relationships, but none more pertinent or literal than the others.

Indeed, the analogy of marriage conveys unity and intimacy. Within that context, male and female physiology operate to express two becoming one and symbolize the mysterious reconciliation between God and people. Nonetheless, it is difficult to appreciate the image of the priest joined with his congregation: he the male, they the female counterpart. The priesthood symbolizes what marriage cannot image: Divine grace dispensed through the sacraments of host and preached word. Some may be convinced that the priest is an image of God and Christ and functions as a symbol of mediation and dispenser of grace. It is far more difficult to understand how the priest functions in relation to worshippers to picture their intimacy and union with God. If all priests must be male, must all congregants be female? No, a priest is not a husband to the local Church. The congregation does not function as a wife to the priest. If so, the priesthood as image is asked to do too much; it becomes a metaphor forced to walk on all fours when there are other effective means to share the task of picturing the character and activity of a relational God.41             

Lewis also feared women priests would mean “that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as well as the Son.”42 However, there is a vast difference between viewing God as motherly and viewing Jesus, a male in the flesh, as a daughter instead of a son. The Scriptures show that God includes, and yet is beyond, masculine and feminine; whereas Jesus was limited physically to one sex. This is one of the restrictions of being human.

Lewis was appalled by the supposals that women priests may show God to be like a good woman, may lead us to pray to a Mother in Heaven, and call Jesus a daughter as well as a son, for the following reason:

if [they] were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion. . . . Religions [with goddesses and priestesses are] quite different in character from Christianity . . . a child who has been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child.43

Why? Because for Lewis, the Christian God was male and more than male, and the endorsement of this is essential to the nature of Christianity. The  exemplifies—images—in the flesh the reality of the masculinity of God. This was, for Lewis, at the heart of Christianity.

To understand Lewis’s point, we must recognize the solidarity that existed for him between image and reality. He was convinced that the masculine imagery was inspired while the feminine imagery was not.

To say that [the masculine imagery] is not inspired . . . is based upon a shallow view of imagery. Without drawing upon religion, we know from our poetic experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit. . . . And as image and apprehension are in an organic unity, so, for a Christian, are human body and human soul.44

For Lewis, the sex of the priest must reflect something crucial about the character of God. Lewis was convinced that the maleness symbolizes one of the hidden things of God and that the male image is far closer to the reality of God than we dare dream.45 A male priest does not make God male. A priest must be male because a priest is the image of a masculine deity. To argue against “declaring women capable of priests’ orders,” he did not dwell on Christ’s maleness, or on Christ’s failure to ordain women, or on the maleness of the twelve apostles (which are the arguments of the Roman Catholic Church and others who oppose women priests). Instead, he stressed that priests must be male in order to reflect the pervasive, eternal, and necessary masculinity of God.

The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession, their sex is irrelevant. We are in that context treating both as neuters. . . .46     

If God is male, and the priest images God by depicting an unalterable reality, then to ordain a woman priest is to make up a new religion (or to revert back to old ones which emphasized sexuality and fertility), because God has no feminine characteristics or qualities that could be reflected by a woman functioning in the priestly role. According to Lewis, to recognize and appreciate feminine aspects of God is to emulate ancient fertility religions with sensual worship rituals, and, in order to prevent this, the  must be perpetuated.

Lewis’s Masculine God

Clearly Lewis believed that God is not beyond gender or androgynous, that God is only and thoroughly masculine.47

Only one wearing the masculine uniform can represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all corporately and individually feminine to Him. We men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all.48

Lewis had an even more narrow view of God than Augustine, who believed that a man alone could reflect the image of God. A man is androgynous, so is God; a man is whole, so is God; but a woman alone cannot reflect God.49 For Lewis, the feminine lies outside of, entirely beyond, and is completely other than God. In other words, it is not that God transcends gender, it is that female transcends God, for God is exclusively male. This demonstrates Lewis’s exalted view of maleness. To say that “we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him” tells us volumes about his understanding of femaleness. He believed that feminine is to masculine what human is to divine, and human, relative to God, implies inferior, subject, submissive, dependent, and responsive; whereas masculine means godlike, powerful, resourceful, and authoritarian.

Does Scripture present God as only masculine? No. Are Lewis’s definitions of masculine and feminine adequate? No. Is insufficient masculinity truly the reason men often make bad priests? No! Contrary to Lewis’s view, our stories, traditions, and texts depict an androgynous, holistic, multivalent God, a well-rounded deity possessing a multiplicity of attributes. Although Scripture was written in eras dominated by patriarchy, we find therein refreshing views of God as both feminine and masculine in the traditional and broader senses of the terms. In the OT, God is likened to a mother giving birth, a mother who is loving, nurturing, and providing. To describe God’s character, our sacred stories use images of a woman’s resources of abundance and nurture, of provision, strength, and comfort.

In Num 11:12, Moses complained that God—not Moses—conceived, gave birth, nursed, and carried the people. In Deut 32:18, God is referred to as “The Rock that labored and bore you.” In Isa 42:14, God says: “Like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp, I pant.” Isaiah 49:15 pictures God as a mother, and more than a mother, for even if a mother could forget her suckling child—and the author intends this thought to be impossible—God will not forget Zion for “behold I have graven you on the palms of my hands.” In Isa 66:13, after describing Jerusalem as a nursing, consoling, carrying, dandling mother, God says: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.” Here in Isa 66, Israel is “his” and God is mother.

Most people easily recognize the analogical nature of female imagery, but resist accepting the analogical nature of the male imagery.50 This is a result of the power of the image formed and enforced by centuries of an overwhelmingly male clergy. To Lewis, and to many others, God is masculine, and this means absolutely impassible, powerfully independent, totally self-sufficient, entirely invulnerable, without need or want of any kind.          

Nevertheless, Scripture does not picture God (or masculinity) this way. Although for Lewis, God was not female at all, Gen 1:27 clearly says that male and female together form the image of God. Genesis 2 says “it is not good that man should be alone”; that, contrary to Augustine, man is incomplete alone. If a priest is to accurately image God, the priesthood should reflect both sides of God’s character. I fear Lewis was perilously close to idolatry in his conception of the maleness of God. Consider Deut 4:15–16:

Since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female. . . . (NRSV)

Given the pervasiveness, the depth, the significance of the image of the priest as male, and the reason given for the necessity of a  (to accurately reflect the sex of God), this was an idolatry far more entrenched than any graven image. Lewis himself stressed in “Priestesses?” that “image and reality are in an organic unity.”51 By insisting on ordaining only males, the Church has for centuries portrayed, promoted, and received an inadequate, single dimensional, even skewed reflection of God.

A perpetuation of a  can hardly be sanctioned from the NT era when women were the first sent ones (apostolate), sent to tell other disciples by the risen Christ himself. To continue the practice of excluding women from the priesthood based on the argument that females transcend the image of God is to idolize the male, to make God in the image of man.52

When Priests Fail

 Lewis’s conception of the masculinity of God—a conception that makes God in the image of man—was never more clear than when he said that male priests fail when they are insufficiently masculine. I propose the opposite assertion: that priests and ministers fail, the Church fails, and the cause of Christ fails because most priests and pastors have been insufficiently feminine; they have been incompletely human and incomplete as divine representatives. They have failed not only in the traditionally feminine roles of being nurturing, comforting, providing, and relational; but they have even failed by not being feminine as Lewis thought of feminine: receptive, vulnerable, empathetic, and dependent. My point is not to discuss theories on sexual difference or the influences of genetics, conditioning, and culture on gender. My intention is to appeal to our sacred stories to demonstrate that God is depicted as a lover and a partner who has chosen to rely upon humans and to possess the vulnerabilities that love and partnership entail. Scripture shows that male and female reflect the image of God, that God is like a nurturing mother; but where and how in our stories and texts do we see God as dependent on the cooperation of people, as vulnerable and responsive? In our zeal to defend the power, sovereignty, and supposed masculinity of God, this interdependent aspect of God, illustrated in the macro-plot of the Bible, normally goes unrecognized.

From the beginning of Scripture’s story, God relied upon humankind to bear God’s image and to care for the creatures of the earth. God’s plans and work are dependent on the free response of humankind. The entire Bible is the story of fulfilled or failed cooperation with God; when humans failed, God failed, but God did not quit. In the account of the flood, God was “grieved to the heart” over human violence and evil intentions (Gen 6:6). Later it became clear that God could not have conceived or gestated a people if Abraham and Sarah had not obeyed and believed at some points, even if they faltered at others. The story in Exodus insists that God needed a mid-wife, Moses, to assist at the delivery of the children of Israel from Egypt. At Sinai the once reluctant, tongue-tied recruit saved the same people and even God from the threatened divine wrath, which, Moses passionately and eloquently argued, was unbecoming to God’s reputation and inconsistent with God’s earlier promises (Exod 32:11–35).

Repeatedly, the stories of Scripture place God in positions of vulnerability and receptivity. Scripture is foremost the story of God’s love. One who loves, one who loves much, is the most often and easily hurt. Yes, God initiated contact and provided deliverance to an enslaved, weak people who were few in number, but if they did not voluntarily ratify the covenant and accept its conditions, it became ineffective (Exod 24, Josh 24). A covenant must have at least two amenable parties. No one, including God, could have made a covenant alone. If the people were faithful to their agreement the covenant remained intact, otherwise God’s desired purposes failed. In fact, the OT is a story of repeated human failure and hence a story of the weakness and suffering of God, for in spite of God’s good will and intentions, power and performance, God could not do it alone. None of our defenses of God can alter the scriptural plot that God’s pleasure and purposes were dependent on the obedience and fidelity of God’s covenant partners. According to other stories and traditions in the text, when the children of Israel hurt, God hurt. “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Isa 63:9 RSV).

Job, who lost all tangible benefits and prosperity, demonstrated to God, to the adversary, and to the reader that one could live for the truth of God rather than the blessing and comfort of God. God depended on Job (unbeknownst to Job) to illustrate that people can ascend to heights of disinterested morality in contrast to other characters—Adam and Eve, David and Solomon, etc.—who established that humans, even with everything going for them, easily descend to the depths of moral failure.53

In being vulnerable to human choices, God takes tremendous risks and suffers the consequences. Why do we assume that we have these stories? Why do we explain away their meaning and claim they do not deconstruct the notion that God is beyond the needs, feelings, and the weaknesses they portray? Abraham Heschel, a Jewish theologian, says the statements about God’s emotions and pathos are “not a compromise—ways of accommodating higher meanings to the lower level of human understanding. They are rather the accommodations of words to higher meanings.”54 This is similar to Lewis’s explanation of the solidarity between image and reality. By insisting God is masculine, Lewis had not considered the full range of God’s character as imaged in Scripture.

The greatest illustration of the weakness, vulnerability, and empathy of God is depicted in the incarnation. Here God became embodied in the weakest and most defenseless form of human life: a human embryo and then a baby. Was the sex of this newborn baby a symbol of God’s power, or was the infancy of Jesus the embodiment of dependence, weakness, and identification with all humanity? When asked if male babies are stronger and more powerful than female babies, if they feed themselves any more adeptly, or learn to speak or walk more quickly, if they feel the pain of hunger, thirst, neglect, and abuse less acutely, the only answer is: of course not! The significance of the incarnation is the identification with humans. In the incarnation, God experienced human limitations as God could no other way. For the first time, God was limited to a time, a place, and a body, and thus to one sex. God became human to learn what being human was like. God had always sought the love of creature and covenant partner and a dwelling place among humans. As Jesus, God longed for the acceptance and responsiveness of his peers. God was at the mercy of others in a dustier, dirtier, bloodier, more tearful way than ever before. For our sake and for God’s sake, God needed to be vulnerable in this way. Hebrews 4:15 says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. . .” (NRSV). Indeed, we do not need such a high priest!

God in Jesus cried over Jerusalem and over Lazarus and over himself. God in Jesus died on a cross. God should have been accustomed to being rejected by people, but God as Jesus felt rejection more acutely than ever before. It is riveting to read that the women stood by Jesus in his dying hour when he felt with the Psalmist that even his God had forsaken him. Never have we seen a weaker picture of God: a paralyzed, dying Jew, a torn and bloody member of a subject people, completely oppressed and smitten, powerless and non-aligned.55

Why then do some insist, with Lewis, that the male sex represent Christ and God on the other side of the altar? Why do we uphold the masculine to image the God who was oppressed, who endured the pain and shame, who knows our weakness firsthand, and carries the iniquities of us all? Why must the historically dominant gender re-enact the drama of the suffering Christ and consecrate the host when politically and religiously powerful males crucified him? The one woman among the elite in the story, the wife of Pilate, urged him to have nothing to do with Jesus. Even the male disciples forsook Christ while the female followers stood with him.

Who is being crucified when females are barred from the priesthood? Are the weak and oppressed still being symbolically sacrificed when the Eucharist is consecrated and served? Unlike Lewis, officials of the Catholic Church do not assert that God is male, but like Lewis, they insist that the priesthood must be male to symbolize the male Christ, as if that is Jesus’s most important quality. Have they forgotten that the one who identified with the widow, the orphan, the weeping mother, the bleeding woman, the dying daughter, the accused adulteress, and the maligned Marys is the perfect representation of God? Has the Church forgotten that God, through the mouths of mothers like Hannah and Mary, through the mouths of the prophets and the incarnate God, Jesus, cried woe to the oppressor?


Male and female together form the image of God. Female priests complete—make whole and perfect—the picture of God that has been one-sided for so many centuries. I recognize with the Roman Catholic Church that Jesus did not ordain women.56 However, is it right to be faithful to something Jesus did not do rather than to those things he did do: uplift the fallen, heal the sick, raise the dead, preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captive, bring sight to the blind, and set at liberty those who are oppressed? Father McBrien of Notre Dame University believes:

the real underlying theological argument against the ordination of women [is] not tradition. Not the teaching and practice of the New Testament Church. Not the teaching and practice of Jesus. It is that since God is masculine, women are less godly than men . . . women as women are incapable of the priestly work of mediation between God and ourselves. . . . The ordination of women question . . . is, at root, a question about the nature of God and the nature of human existence.57

B. T. Roberts, who founded the Free Methodist Church, wrote:

Why does [the Church] not have a more marked effect upon the lives of those who acknowledge its truth? There must be a cause! The reason is that the vast majority of those who embrace the Gospel are not permitted to labor according to their ability, for the spread of the Gospel.58

C. S. Lewis was fearful of rearranging shadows and thereby losing an understanding of the mysterious realities of the masculine and the feminine that stand behind earthly gender. I am concerned that we have lost more intrinsically significant realities about God by excluding from sacramental service to the Church women who—if they were included—would far better embody and bring to pass the themes of the songs of Hannah and Mary which underscore the exaltation of the lowly and the lowering of the mighty.59

I conclude with a poem written by Roman Catholic author Frances C. Frank, mother of three and grandmother of three.

Did the woman say

        When she held him for the first time in the dark

        dank of a stable,

        After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,

                        “This is my body; this is my blood”?

        Did the woman say,

        When she held him for the last time in the dark rain

        on a hilltop,

        After the pain and the bleeding and dying,

                        “This is my body; this is my blood”?

        Well that she said it to him then,

        For dry old men,

        Brocaded robes belying barrenness,

                        Ordain that she not say it for him now.60


A version of this article will appear as a chapter in the author’s forthcoming book on Christian feminist theology.

1. Later published as “Priestesses in the Church?,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970) 234–39.

2. The American Episcopal Church began to ordain women as priests in 1976.

3. J. I. Packer, e.g., who is also an Anglican, echoed most of Lewis’s 1948 concerns in “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters,” Christianity Today 35/2 (Feb 11, 1991) 18–21.

4. “Abecedarium Philisophicum,” cited by Margaret Hannay in “C. S. Lewis: Mere Misogyny?,” Daughters of Sarah 1/6 (Sept 1975) 1.

5. Hannay, “Mere Misogyny?,” 1–2. W. Andrew Hoffecker and John Timmerman, in “Watchmen in the City: C. S. Lewis’s View of Male and Female,” The Cresset 41/4 (Feb 1978), cite his earlier relationship to his friend’s mother, Mrs. Moore, to claim that Lewis’s view in “Priestesses” is not couched in rancor or chauvinism. However, I do not think Lewis’s controversial relationship to Mrs. Moore demonstrates that he had a positive view of women.

6. Hannay, “Mere Misogyny?,” 6.

7. Those who have read Lewis’s fiction will note the contrast between his portrayal of Jane in That Hideous Strength (1945) with his portrayal of Orual and Psyche in Till We Have Faces (1956) four years after he met Joy.

8. Lewis died in 1963; Joy died several years earlier.

9. See also Deut 23:17–18: “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute. You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent to the Lord your God” (NRSV). In 1 Sam 2:22–25, Eli’s sons are cursed for lying with the women who served at the tent of meeting at Shiloh, but this says nothing about the practices of other nations.

10. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2:9–10 NRSV).

11. According to Ignatius of Antioch: “Wherever the bishop is, the whole congregation is present, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the whole Church.” (Smyrnaeans 8, cited by William Spencer, “The Chaining of the Church,” Christian History VII/1/17 (1988) 24.

12. Peter Fink, “Priesthood,” in Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson and John Bowden (Westminster, 1983) 465.

13. Spencer, “The Chaining of the Church,” 25.

14. Spencer, “The Chaining of the Church,” 25.

15. Packer, “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters,” 20.

16. “Women Once Served as Priests,” The Progress (24 Oct 1991) 2. “Otranto concedes that even when women served as priests, the practice was the exception rather than the rule and was condemned by the Church hierarchy.” But dioceses ordaining women remained in full communion with the Church. See also Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (Harper, 1993).

17. Fink, “Priesthood,” 466.

18. Complementarian Protestants consider the restrictions found in 1 Cor 14:34–35; 1 Tim 2:11–12, 3:12; and Titus 1:6 normative for all Churches in all times, dismissing other references to women coworkers, ministers, and prophets found in Acts 2:1, 16–21; 16:11–15; 17:4, 12; 21:9; Rom 16; 1 Cor 11:4–5; Phil 4:3; Col 4:15; 2 Tim 4:19; Titus 2:3–4; etc. They also ignore or minimize the vastly varied cultural situation between the first century and now.

19. The Vatican’s Declaration on the Order of the Priesthood, “Inter Insigniores” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith concerning the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood, Origins 6:33 (3 Feb 1977) 517–24, and L’Observatore Romano (3 Feb 1977) 6–8. See also Paul Jewett, The Ordination of Women (Eerdmans, 1980) 84.

20. “One in Christ Jesus: A Response to the Concern of Women for Church and Society,” The Bishop’s Pastoral, Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Seattle Wash. (24 May 1990) 11.

21. Rosemary Reuther examines this concept in her article “Entering the Sanctuary: The Roman Catholic Story,” in Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Reuther and Eleanor McLaughlin (Simon and Schuster, 1979) 380. Speaking of “Inter Insigniores,” she says: “It asserts that, following Jesus, the Church has always believed in the equality of women with men in the natural order. Exclusion from the priesthood is not based on any such concept of inferiority or subjection, but rather on some mysterious sacramental bond between Christ, maleness, and priesthood.”

22. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 235.

23. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 235.

24. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 235.

25. Barbara MacHaffie, Her Story: Women in the Christian Tradition (Fortress, 1986) 52.

26. MacHaffie, Her Story, 44.

27. MacHaffie, Her Story, 44. See also Transforming Grace by Anne Carr (Harper and Row, 1988) 1–59.

28. Summa Theologiae I, 92, I; note 18, IV Sent. 25, 2, 1, quoted by Will Durant, Age of Faith (Simon and Schuster, 1950) 973, 826; and Ruth Tucker, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Acadamie, 1987) 164.

29. Rosemary Reuther, “Persecution of Witches: A Case of Ageism and Sexism?,” Christianity and Crisis 34 (23 Dec 1974) 291, cited by MacHaffie, Her Story, 56. According to MacHaffie, in some places the ratio of women tried as witches to men was 2/1; in others it was 20/1; and others 100/1. “In Essex County, England 90 percent of the inhabitants tried for witchcraft were women. . . . The witch trials of 1585 left two villages with only one female each . . . the image of the witch was—and continues to be—female” (56). MacHaffie cites Malleus Malleficarum (Hammer of Witches, 1486), which asserts that witchcraft is more likely to be found among women because they were “feebleminded and easily swayed by false doctrines . . . were morally weak . . . inclined toward deceit and revenge; . . . they would seize any opportunity to harm those around them; [their] faith was weak and they would easily renounce Christianity . . . they had insatiable lust, which caused them to submit willingly to the sexual advances of the devil” (56).

30. MacHaffie, Her Story, 57.

31. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 235.

32. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 235.

33. The Bishop’s Pastoral, “One in Christ Jesus: A Response,” refers to these same verses to prove the presence of women at Pentecost and their resulting activity. “In the early Church, women along with men received the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14, 2:3–4) came to believe (Acts 5:14). . . . They prophesied (Acts 21:9) and taught others about Jesus (Acts 18:26), braving persecution and imprisonment for the sake of the Name.”

34. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 236.

35. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 236.

36. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 236.

37. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 237.

38. Julian of Norwich referred to Jesus—and medieval artists depicted him—as “our Mother Jesus.” Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Clifton Wolters (Penguin, 1966) 33.

39. Wolters, Julian of Norwich, 33.

40. Wolters, Julian of Norwich, 33.

41. Gen 1:27, Eph 5:22–32.

42. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 237.

43. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 237.

44. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 237.

45. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 237.

46. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 237.

47. I disagree with Maggie Kirkman and Norma Grieve in “Women, Power and Ordination: A Psychological Interpretation of the Objections to the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood,” Women’s Studies International Forum 7/6 (Great Britain, 1984) 489. They say that Lewis believed spiritually androgynous male priests properly image an androgynous God. But to Lewis, God is only masculine and only a truly masculine man will truly reflect God.

48. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 239.

49. Augustine, De Trinitate 7.7, 10 quoted by Kirkman and Grieve (488) and Rosemary Radford Reuther, Religion and Sexism (Simon and Schuster, 1974) 156. “The woman together with her husband is the image of God, so that the whole substance may be one image. But when she is referred to separately in her quality of a helpmate, which regards the woman herself alone, then she is not the image of God. But as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him.” Also see Not in God’s Image, ed. Julia O’Faolain and Lauro Martines (Harper and Row, 1973) 130.

50. See Jewett, “Ordination of Women,” 86.

51. Lewis, “Priestesses,” 237.

52. For culturally conditioned men in authority to give their sisters in Christ full equality may have been too much to expect, and too much for the Greco-Roman world to accept. Christianity itself was revolutionary, too much for that world to accept, and Christians were severely persecuted and martyred for their misunderstood devotion to God and Christ. The fact remains that the Spirit of God came equally to women, that women probably spread the gospel as much—or more than—men. We have not been told the whole story. And the story we do know contains evidence that women were an integral part of early Christianity when it was poor, persecuted and hounded. Note the apostle Junia, cited in Rom 16:7.

53. Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God (Zondervan, 1988) 171–72.

54. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, In His Image (Zondervan, 1984) 282.

55. See Brand and Yancey, In His Image, for a moving discussion of the weakness and pain of God.

56. Like Father McBrien and many others have stressed, the fact that Jesus did not ordain women when there was no formal ordination process of any sort carries little weight. The same reasoning would lead the church to jettison ordination altogether. The Roman Catholic Church has said: “the Church in fidelity to the example of our Lord does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” See “Inter Insigniores,” 10–11; Jewett, “Ordination of Women,” 84.

57. McBrien, in “Inter Insigniores,” 6.

58. B. T. Roberts, Ordaining Women (1992, Dayton edition) 116.

59. 1 Sam 2:1–10, Luke 1:46–55.

60. Frances C. Frank, A Matter of Spirit: A Peacemaking Journal of the Northwest 4 (Easter 1990) 5.

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