Women in Ministry?
Women in Ministry, Word and Sacrament
Are we still taking about this? It’s astonishing that in the year 2020 there should be any need to write in defence of the right of women to be fully ordained as ministers of God’s church. It’s not that the resilient and articulate women who lead our faith communities need another presumptuous male voice jumping to their defence; let there be no doubt that the single best argument in support of women’s ordination remains the professional and pastoral excellence of all those women whom God has called to minister in word and sacrament. For some in our pews, however, a cluster of teachings (invariably those of St. Paul) continues to prevent them from celebrating and benefiting from the talents of female pastors. Let’s try, in the space of this short article, to meet them where they are as we review some biblical endorsements of gender equality within the church hierarchy.
Ministry of the Word
Some of the most beautiful passages of scripture — the word of God, no less — are delivered by women: Deborah’s Song (Judges 5), Hannah’s Prayer (1 Samuel 2:1-10), and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), only to name a few. Needless to say that were the compilers of the biblical canon to take literally the words of the Apostle, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man’ (1 Timothy 2:12), we would be deprived of these exquisite writings and the Bible itself would be much the poorer. One of the most often cited texts in support of women in the pulpit is, of course, the morning of Christ’s resurrection on which Mary Magdalene carried the good news to the eleven remaining disciples, who would, in turn, bring the gospel to the world. What if Mary had kept silent? Christianity would have no message. If God has given women the honour of writing scripture, who can deny them the honour a little lower than this of preaching on it? Enough said.
Ministry of the Sacraments
We’ve seen that women are fully capable, from a biblical perspective, of eloquent and impassioned preaching through which to minister the word of God. Now let’s turn our attention to the ministry of the sacrament, and the passage in Mark 14, where St. Mary of Bethany anoints Christ with perfume. Despite ministering from the heart, aiming to please the Lord, and doing everything right, Mary still somehow manages to attract the opprobrium of a male onlooker, who precedes to mansplain that the expensive perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Sound familiar, anyone?
As I understand it, something has to fulfil three criteria to be called a sacrament: (1) there is biblical evidence of it having been instituted by Christ; (2) it mediates God’s grace through physical reality; (3) it relates to some kind of universal human experience. On these grounds, there is a strong case for the sacramentality of last rites: (1) Christ institutes the sacrament with the words, ‘She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial’ (v.8b); (2) the physical object of the perfume becomes tied in with the gospel (v.9); (3) death is obviously a universal human experience.
Making the case for last rites as a sacrament isn’t the primary goal of this post; for our Protestant readers, though, hopefully I’ve at least persuaded you to indulge my reasoning for the purposes of this article. Having established last rites as a sacramental ministry, let’s restate the obvious: that the Bible depicts a woman delivering a sacrament to no less a figure than the Son of God himself. Not only does Christ receive the sacrament from a woman, he commands those who would hinder Mary to ‘leaver her alone’ (v.6) and let her perform her sacramental ministry in peace. ‘Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me,’ as Eugene Peterson pointedly translates it. Christ may well be asking the same question of conservatives today.
We haven’t yet fully exhausted the importance of Mary’s ministry, for this female minister participated in strengthening the human nature of Christ to face the cross. In his time of trial, Christ was heartened by having received in his body the sacramental grace of his baptism, the Eucharist, and his last rites. Again, where would we be today if Mary hadn’t fulfilled her sacramental duties?
Would Christ have found the strength to face his darkest hour? Things were touch-and-go for a while in Gethsemane. ‘Let this cup pass from me.’ I believe it was the sacramental grace which Christ received that, as the fate of humanity hung in the balance, enabled him finally to say, ‘not as I will, but as you will.’ Surely it isn’t insignificant that ministers of different genders performed the sacraments which bookended Christ’s own earthly ministry: a man his baptism, and a woman his last rites. Neither men nor women, in the writings of the Evangelists, therefore, hold a monopoly on the sacramental oversight of the early church. So must it be in the church of today. After all, our Evangelical friends are forever telling us that the structures of the church must be biblically faithful.
A Farewell to Complementarianism?
Complementarianism is the belief that women may use whatever skills they have to compliment those of the men who lead the church, but may not themselves assume such positions of leadership. As will be clear by now, this ideology is a complete invention that — in spite of what its proponents might argue — has no credible basis in the Bible. My focus on the ministries of word and sacrament has been deliberate and leaves the two main western Christian traditions without excuse as touching female ordination: the Protestant churches with their reverence for the word, and the Catholic Church with its devotion to the sacraments. Here’s hoping that the powers that be will take the time to open a Bible and read of gifted female ministers being celebrated and fully endorsed in its pages.
Matthew Allen is a regular contributor to Left Side Up.