Should the Church of England have voted in favour of Women Bishops? As an unchristened Free Church minister I am eminently unqualified to answer that question, but I do think it touches sufficiently on the wider issue of women in church leadership and that makes it worth exploring from an outside perspective.
I feel the whole debate revolves around one verse in which the Apostle Paul states:
“12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim 2:12-13)
This is not a classic appeal to this text but I think this is the heart of the issue because in this passage there is a direct appeal to the pre-fallen order of creation that I think trumps contextualising interpretations. This verse also makes sense of Paul’s other unequivocal references to male headship that are also hard to explain away through contextualisation (1 Corinthians 11:3 & 7-9)
I would argue that Paul’s main concern is the issue of authority. Not all types of authority, but a kind of authority that was exercised within the New Testament era churches, and that is not something that transposes directly to today’s Church. Who exercises that type of authority today? A pastor? An elder? A preacher? A deacon? A teacher? A small-group leader? A bishop? (and so on…)
The answer depends firstly on what exactly that authority is, and secondly on a church’s definition of those roles. To what extent is any particular office authoritative in the way Paul is talking about?
I would suggest that the definition of authority in this context is specifically tied to the need to exercise discipline within the NT churches. The concern of these churches was “the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom 1:5), false teaching or unchristian behaviour would undermine the Church by undermining obedience to Christ and therefore it had to be confronted and dealt with. So, some “teaching” would have been authoritative (e.g. teaching a group of newly converted pagans that they are not permitted to [insert pagan activity here] any more) while some teaching would not have been authoritative in the same way, but more discursive or instructional (e.g. Priscilla and Aquila teaching Apollos in Acts 18:26). In other words, the authority that Paul here wishes to protect as belonging to men only is the type of authority that is dealing with situations where church discipline may need to be enforced.
To give an example of where this authority would be exercised, if a church member is behaving immorally (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5) he is urged to repent. First one to one, then if it continues by two members, then before the whole church and finally, if there is no repentance, he is cut off from fellowship. (Matt 18:15-17)
Another example would be in a relationship of pastoral discipleship. The discipler is training a young Christian who willingly submits to the authority of their teacher. The young Christian confesses that they have recently been getting drunk at parties. In a discipleship context, (imagine here Paul teaching Timothy) the discipler informs the young Christian that they are not permitted as a Christian to carry on doing this. In order to forbid an activity, rather than simply advise against it, a certain type of authority is required both to state and to enforce the injunction.
I believe these are the types of situations that Paul is talking about in 1 Timothy where it is wholly inappropriate for a woman to have authority over a man. We could still ask the question “Why?”, but that that’s another post, and even though there are still questions we can begin transposing the principle to our own contexts.
So, in my own church, the pastor has the job of teaching the church, preaching, praying for the church, serving the church, modelling discipleship and exercising discipline (and probably a load of other things too!) Can a woman be a pastor in this way without exercising the authority over a man that Paul says she should not have? In my church no, because some of these things are necessarily authoritative in the way Paul talks about. Nor could she be an elder because of our definition of the role of an elder, it also implicitly includes that authority.
But none of that means that women can’t have an elder type role, preach, or teach (depending on your definitions of those things), or have all sorts of input into church leadership without exercising that authority. A woman could be eligible for a paid pastoral position, professional training, input into doctrine and church policy, a place alongside the elders in their regular meetings and so on.
What about a church with a tighter definition of “preach” for example, what if preaching was always seen as authoritative “prophecy” as in the Reformed tradition? Then, no, that would be problematic because she would be implicitly exercising disciplinary authority.
What about a church without that emphasis on authoritative teaching, without church discipline or without an emphasis on spiritual maturity through pastoral discipleship? Well, then it matters very little whether you call the person in charge of that church “teaching elder”, “pastor”, “vicar”, “bishop” or whatever you like, regardless of the title they are not exercising the type of authority that Paul is concerned with.
And so to the Church of England. If nothing else, the debate this week has revealed that it is a church with no commonly accepted basis of authoritative teaching, no meaningful church discipline and no commonly accepted idea of what discipleship means. What is the job of a “bishop” in that context? Surely it cannot be authoritative in the way Paul is concerned about. For that reason I would argue that it matters very little whether the bishops are men or women, you could easily argue that women would do just as good a job, if not better, than the men who are currently there. But that is not an argument for the future appointment of women bishops in the CofE. It is an argument against something that happened long ago, the abdication of genuine, gospel protecting, discipleship promoting, God-glorifying authority.