On Women Bishops and the Bible

In June, our Diocesan synod will be discussing the issue of whether we should have women bishops. At some point in the near future General Synod (the national body of the Church of England) will be making a decision. 

For today’s society, the debate seems archaic. Women hold positions of the highest authority in all areas of our society. So why is it still an issue for the church?

As Christians we are called not to simply follow society, but to be people under authority. We do not do something simply because everybody else is doing it, or even because it seems the right thing to do. Of course those are really important factors, but when we call Jesus ‘Lord’ we place ourselves under his authority, and under the authority of his Word. We need to work out what the teaching of the Bible is on the issue of women exercising, in human terms, the highest authority in the church.

There are many who argue that the Bible teaches clearly that headship should be male. Adam was created before Eve, and therefore has primacy (1 Timothy 2:13). It was Eve that fell first and then Adam (1 Timothy 2:14). In 1 Corinthians 11:3ff Paul writes, ‘But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God’. Ephesians 5:22-33 talks about the marriage relationship, in which the wife is called to submit to her husband, ‘For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its saviour’. That passage is immediately followed by the call to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. The submission/love pattern is repeated in Colossians 3:18-19, and in 1 Peter 3:1-7. There husbands are called to ‘show honour to the woman as the weaker vessel’, a verse which is - in the context - simply referring to the general fact that men are usually physically stronger than women and, as the stories of most domestic violence so tragically tell us, often throw their weight around to get what they want.

Going wider than the marriage relationship, male headship is assumed in several passages. In 1 Corinthians Paul instructs that women are to be silent in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:33-35), and  to wear a covering on their heads when they pray in order to denote that they are under authority (1 Corinthians 11:10). In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul writes that in the church a woman is not to teach or to have authority over a man in church. They are permitted to teach, but only other women and children. As such, the idea that women should exercise headship in the church, through episcopacy, is seen to be directly counter to the teaching of scripture as it has been understood by the Church for the last 2000 years.

People who hold this view are often accused of mysogeny. That is extremely unfair. Many women defend a traditional understanding of the texts. They would argue that the traditional view offers a respect to women, and a recognition of women as women, which secular society has lost. They affirm the value of womanhood and of the idea of complementarity, and they refuse to accept the idea that women must become like men in order to gain fulfilment. We need both the male and female dimensions, and we confuse those dimensions at our peril. It should also be said that many men who hold this view will work for women in the secular world and have no issues or problems about that. It is simply that their understanding of scripture and their acceptance of the authority of scripture leads them to the conclusion that in the church and in the family, headship must be male.

However, I would argue that there is another way of reading scripture which both affirms the complementarity of the sexes and which leads to egalitarianism. This still begins with the idea that Adam came first and then Eve, but that inequality was a consequence of the fall. As a result of the fall, God says to Eve, ‘Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you’ (Genesis 3:16). Interestingly Adam only names Eve after the fall (Genesis 3:20). But the death and resurrection of Christ has reversed the fall, and so in Galatians 3:28 we read that ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (racial distinctions), slave nor free (social distinctions), there is no male or female’. It states that we are all ‘sons of God, through faith’ (Galatians 3:26). Interestingly Jesus says that in the Kingdom of God there will be no marriage for ‘we will be like the angels’ (Matthew 22:30). Virtually all commentators agree that this implies that in heaven we will be beyond sexuality.

We therefore read the texts about the silence of women or the submission of women in the light of Galatians 3:28, and so it is justifiable to read them within the context of the time. Indeed, 1 Timothy 2 speaks of how women will be saved ‘through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control’. It is a verse on which much ink has been spilt, and very odd given that we are all saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ. But certainly one interpretation is the idea that the salvation being spoken of here is a salvation from all the dimensions of the curse in Genesis 3.

In this understanding, man remains the ‘arche’, ‘source’, ‘head’ of woman, because in the beginning man came first. However, just as a parent, who is the ‘source’, ‘head’ of their child, longs for their child to have the full responsibility of an adult; and just as Christ, who is the ‘source’ and ‘head’ of the church, longs for the church to grow to full maturity, that we may be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4), and ‘be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:19) - so the biblical vision is of a humanity which in Christ embraces both the male and female, and is fully equal. The passages that speak of women keeping silent, or being submissive to their husbands, are to be understood in a similar way to those passages urging slaves to be obedient to their masters. It was the way society was, and Christians were called to be salt and light in society, to change the world through love and not through revolution. The key is that, through the lives of believers, ‘the word of God may not be reviled’ (Titus 2:5).

On such a view, women bishops are to be welcomed, both as adding a complementary dimension to the college of bishops and overseers, so that it includes both male and female; but also as an anticipation of what is to come in the Kingdom when the curse is completely cancelled, and there will be no male or female in Christ. This is the position that I personally hold.

My hope for the forthcoming debate, and whatever settlement is agreed, is that grace is given on both sides. I suspect that General Synod will support women bishops, and those who interpret the scriptures through the lens of Genesis 3:16 and Galatians 3:28 cannot and must not dismiss those who hold to a traditional understanding of the biblical texts (complementarians) as ‘mysogenists’. Equally I would hope that those of us who hold to an egalitarian understanding of the texts are not simply dismissed as ’liberals’. We have a common recognition of the authority of the Bible as the Word of God, and that we are justified by faith in Christ alone, and I would sincerely hope that this is not something that causes evangelicals to break fellowship with each other. There is so much more we can agree on. However, if women bishops are appointed in the Church of England, then I do pray that there will be generous accommodation for those who have a more traditional understanding of the texts. Richard Hooker (1554-1600) famously said, ‘Think ye are men, deem it not impossible for you to err’. It is advice that those on both sides of this debate need to consider. 


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