The ordination of women to the Christian ministry, specifically the pastoral office of overseeing worship and performing preaching and the Lord’s Supper, is a recent development in Church history. From the early church until the late 20th century, women were not ordained as ministers, not in any major branch of the Church, East or West, Protestant or Catholic. Only in a few idiosyncratic groups, almost always anti-theological and/or “pentecostal,” were women “ordained.”
It is not our purpose here to engage this whole issue, but to make some fundamental theological points that have been made before in Church history, but which are often not heard in evangelical circles wrestling with this issue.
The question we wish to raise is the nature of male and female in creation. Today it is broadly assumed that the difference between men and women is fundamentally biological, with perhaps some psychological differences linked to that biology. Taking this view, it seems that liturgical function is simply a matter of taking up a role in the Church community. To use familiar language, there is a lower story in human life that is biological, where the differences between men and women are important; but there is an upper story, a spiritual realm, in which those differences may not be important.
We wish to turn this on its head and look at things from that perspective. Our thesis is that the differences between men and women are, by creation design, fundamentally liturgical and only secondarily biological and psychological. To put it another way, our thesis is that the physical and psychological differences between men and women are grounded in their differing liturgical roles.
The Liturgical Creation
Let us begin by considering some foundational Biblical data. When God created mankind, He first created a male, and then a female. Paul refers to this in a seemingly absurd argument in 1 Timothy 2:12-13, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise judgement over a man, but to remain quiet, because it was Adam who was formed first, then Eve.” This is certainly an odd argument to modern ears.
Moreover, what Paul says is clearly not absolute, since we find plenty of prophetesses and wise women in the Old Testament and in the New. Deborah, for instance, obviously taught the men around her. Huldah gave instruction to the High Priest in 2 Kings 22:14-20. Hence, Paul’s argument must not be removed from its Biblical context. What is the context of 1 Timothy 2? Many modern popular evangelical writings read the Pastoral Epistles as if they were written directly to all believers. In fact, they are written directly to pastors, to servant-priests. Of course, what is written has relevance to the lives of believers, royal priests, but what is written must be read in context. Briefly, then:
1:3-11 addresses Timothy as a teacher, and discusses false teachers.
1:12- 20 speaks of Paul’ s conversion and of his authoritative excommunication of Hymenaus and Alexander, an example of priestly power and duty set out as an example for Timothy.
2:1-7 says that prayer is to be offered for all mankind, which moves us into the realm of worship, but not necessarily into the realm of special worship.
2:8-15 begins by saying that men should offer prayer and women should be modest. This odd contrast -women don’t pray also? – points us to a specific kind of prayer. We shall expand on this below.
3:1-13 concerns office in the Church. The section on “elders” says nothing about women, but seemingly excludes them by saying “husband of one wife.” The section on “deacons” pretty clearly encompasses deaconesses (v. 11). The restriction of eldership to men is confirmed by the fact that this paragraph follows 2:8-15.
4:1-16 concerns false teachers, again dealing with leadership.
5:1-16 concerns widow women, and implies an “office” of widow in v. 5, 9-10.
We won’t continue farther. The rest of the epistle continues the same theme: The letter is an address to a pastor about order in the church, and pays attention to men and women and their different roles.
Turning to 2:8-15, Paul begins by saying that men (males) should lead in prayer, and women follow (vv. 8-11). His context, hence, is liturgical, but seemingly general, providing a general rule. After all, women may pray in public (1 Cor. 11:5), and the men in Timothy’s congregation should receive instruction quietly and with submissiveness.
Paul moves to a strict rule, however, in v. 12: Women are not permitted to “teach” or to “exercise authority over a man.” He does not write, “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness, because I do not allow a woman to teach….” Rather, v. 12 begins a somewhat new thought, indicated by “and” or “but” (the Greek can go either way).
The word “teach” is important here. Throughout 1 Timothy, and arguably everywhere in the New Testament, “teach” (didasko) has reference to authoritative teaching by someone appointed or recognized as a teacher. It is Timothy, the pastor, who is to “teach” in 4:11 and 6:2, and Paul who is a “teacher” in 2:7. The official character of “teacher” is also seen in 1:3,7 and 6:3.
From this it is fairly clear that it is the official function of teacher in the church that is in view in v. 12. The context of Paul’s argument provides an indication of how he is reading and understanding the creation account in Genesis 2. When we look back at Genesis 2, it becomes apparent that “official teacher in the church as gathered for sacrament” is what Paul has in mind here.
Adam was made first. God said that it was not good for him to be alone, and determined to provide a helper suited for him. Animals passed before Adam, but none was such a helper. Then Eve was formed from his side, and she was such a helper.
But what kind of helper? Animals are indeed helpers for men; one need only think of oxen helping plow a field.” Ah, but animals cannot bring children for Adam.” True, but nothing about children is found in this passage. According to Genesis 2, Eve was not formed primarily to help Adam reproduce, but to be a helper in some other sense.
To understand that sense, we have to note that the context is the Garden of Eden, the first sanctuary, wherein were placed two sacramental trees. The setting is not the land or the wider world. If it were, then the idea would be that the woman is needed to help with various dominion tasks – which is indeed partly true, but secondary and not the point of the passage. The point of the passage is that animals could not help Adam worship God in the sanctuary. Adam needed a liturgical helper, someone who could join him in liturgical speech and action.
Adam was created not homo sapiens but homo adorans, worshipping man. His first and most important purpose was to worship the Father, as the Son and Spirit worship the Father. And as the Father is worshipped by two, not by one, in the Godhead, so in the creation there is a need for two worshippers, not merely one. John 4:23 says that the Father seeks worshippers, who worship in truth (like the Son) and spirit (like the Spirit). Worship happens when “two or three” are gathered. A “testimony of two witnesses” is needed for this kind of worship. To be sure, we can worship privately and individually, but that is not the best and highest form of worship. For the worship in the Garden to be true and complete, Adam needs a liturgical helper.
The fact that she is intended as a liturgical helper already indicates that Adam is the leader in worship. But there is more in the passage that is important to consider. Before Eve was formed from Adam, God had already pointed out the two sacramental trees to Adam and forbidden him to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. After Eve was made, God told both of them that every fruit-bearing tree would be for them to eat (Gen. 1:29). Hence, what Eve heard God say implied permission to eat of every tree in the Garden.
How, then, did Eve learn that the Tree of Knowledge was (temporarily) forbidden? The answer is that Adam told her. Adam was her teacher in liturgical matters. This does not mean that Adam was to be her teacher in all matters, nor does it mean that he would never be instructed by her. What it does mean is that God set up the world in the beginning so that in matters of worship the woman is taught by the man.
And not only taught, but led. Adam was told to guard the Garden, and told this before Eve was made. Eve was now in the Garden, and Adam was to guard her. While men should generally be protective toward women as “weaker vessels” (and indeed, instinctively are protective toward women; 1 Pet. 3:7), the context here is liturgical. Adam was to guard Eve’s worship. This is what he failed to do, as he stood by and refused to interrupt the serpent and protect Eve from eating of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:6 -“with her” can only mean he was standing by during the conversation). Rather than teach, lead, and guard her properly, Adam allowed her to be deceived, tricked by the serpent, and by himself as well.
Hence, Paul states that he does not allow a women to teach or exercise authority over a man, in worship, and he follows up this twin prohibition by saying that the man was created first, (and hence was the teacher who had the earlier-imparted information) and that the woman was deceived (2 Tim. 2:14, pointing to the fact that Adam had not exercised his authority as she fell into transgression).
If we go back to Genesis 3:17, we find that God condemns Adam for two things: “Because you have listened to the voice of your women, and have eaten from the tree….” Listening to the woman is mentioned first. Adam’s sin was in failing to be a teacher and guard, and allowing himself to be taught by his woman in the liturgical setting of the Garden on the sabbath day. To put it bluntly, Adam fell by letting a woman be the pastor of the Garden church. He allowed her to make the decision about the sacramental tree, to be the authority over the sacramental food. He allowed her, in other words, to be in charge of the Lord’s Table.
Let us be clear that Eve did not take up this role because she was a feminist, because she coveted the pastoral office. No, she took up this role because she was tricked into it, and because the man refused to do his duty and perform his role as sacramental supervisor in the liturgy of the Garden.
In Leviticus we find a distinction between “sins of inadvertency,” which is better translated “sins of being led astray or of wandering astray,” and “high-handed sins.” Eve’s sin was one of being led astray, a “sin of ignorance.” Adam’s sin was deliberate, high-handed. He sinned with full knowledge. He had actually heard God’s voice forbid the Tree of Knowledge.
Today, of course, feminists demand pastoral office. But very often, women serve as pastors (and as table-supervising “ruling elders” in certain types of churches) simply because men won’t. Men have stepped back and allowed women to be pastors. The fault lies with men, and not primarily with women.
We have argued that according to Genesis 2-3, humanity’s first and fundamental purpose is liturgical, not dominical. The “dominion mandate” is recorded in Genesis 1, but before this, according to Genesis 2, the “liturgical/sacramental mandate” had been given. The woman was made a liturgical helper first and foremost, and only secondarily someone who would help with the “cultural mandate” to take dominion over the world. The cultural mandate is given equally to men and women (Gen. 1:28). In cultural life, the man is to help the woman as much as the woman helps the man. But in liturgy, which is primary, things are different. The man is to lead; the woman is to respond.
Now, it is true that male leadership extends into cultural life, but not absolutely. Men should be heads of their families, but if the man is a drunkard, it is not wrong for the woman to take charge. In wider life, men usually are rulers in civil society, but it is not a sin to have a woman ruler. Beyond this, there is nothing wrong with women as teachers, orchestra conductors, deaconesses, or seminary professors (as prophetesses and wise women).
In the liturgical sanctuary setting, gathered around the sacrament (around the two trees at the centre of the Garden), however, the distinction is absolute. It is a sin for a man to listen to the words of a woman in liturgy, according to Genesis 3:17. It is a sin for a woman, for whatever reason, to take charge of the sacraments. (An exception might be something like an all-woman church in a prison setting).
The Heart of Liturgy
What we call sacrament, the food-aspect of worship, is essential here. Biblically, sanctuary worship, or worship in the heavenlies, is always a “marriage supper,” always sacramental. Protestant churches have tended to make the Lord’s Supper into an occasional event, annual, quarterly, or monthly. The Protestant “preaching-only worship service” is really a glorified Bible study, and from a Biblical point of view, there does not seem to be any strong reason why a woman may not oversee and preach in such a worship setting. Why can’t women teach men the Bible? Deborah clearly did so. If the “heart” of worship is prophetic and not priestly, there seems no reason Biblically why a prophetess cannot preside. When the sacrament is regarded as something merely “added to” this prophetic meeting, there seems no reason why a woman may not preside at the sacrament also.
With this mentality, evangelical Protestants are unable to deal adequately with the Biblical data. Biblically speaking, full worship is always sacramental, always includes the covenant meal. It is primarily priestly, not primarily prophetic. Once this is clearly understood, the Biblical data is clear: Only men may preside over the covenant-renewal meal.
In the Garden, the meal was the primary focus. What Adam taught Eve was about the food of the Garden: not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. That is, his preaching was sacramentally qualified, situated in a sacramental setting. In sacramental worship, the sermon is not something separate from the Table and Meal, but is a message “at” the Table. On other occasions, the preaching stands by itself, and is “prophetic,” but not on this occasion. Prophetic or preaching services do not take place “in the Garden,” “in the Temple,” “in the sanctuary,” but in the more general areas of life. In fact, it is hard to find a “preaching sermon” in the Bible that does not take place in the public square.
Having divorced worship from sacrament, Protestants are left with trying to figure out why women may not preach in worship. “Let the women keep silent in the church,” says Paul (1 Cor. 14:34) – but what does that mean? Does it mean women are forbidden to join in corporate prayer, forbidden to say “amen,” forbidden to join in singing hymns and psalms? Obviously not. And, is Paul contradicting the OT evidence that women did teach men about Biblical matters on occasion? Is the New Covenant more restrictive than the Old?
It is only when we see that special worship, worship “in the heavenlies,” is sacramental that we can put these commands in their proper context. It is during sacramental worship, during the Lord’s Day when the Church gathers for the Lord’s Supper, that the rule of men-only as “priests” applies.
The Church has various kinds of events. The rule we are discussing applies wholly only to one of these: the sacramental covenant-renewal worship liturgy. It is not wrong to allow a woman missionary to speak to the congregation on Sunday night, or to have a woman theologian teach Adult Sunday School for a time, or to have women as well as men offer prayers in a prayer meeting. The general rule of male headship may mean that such occasions are rarer than having men as teachers, but the general rule does not outlaw such events. It is only in the sanctuary context that the general rule becomes absolute.
Male Priesthood in the Bible
We can trace this theme through the Bible. We see prophetesses like Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4-5), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14ff.), and Anna (Luke 2:36); and various “wise women”; as well as women leaders of the nation (Deborah, and Miriam, Micah 6:4). But we never see women as priests.
We see women as deaconesses at the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8; Jud. 11:40; 1 Sam. 2:22), and perhaps women among the Levite singers (1 Chron. 25:5-6, where v. 6 almost certainly refers only to the children of Heman; compare v. 2, v. 3, and vv. 4- 6a). But we never see women as priests.
The priests were males only, and they alone entered the new form of the Garden sanctuary, Tabernacle and Temple. They alone supervised the sacramental meals of those sanctuaries. They were the primary teachers in Israel as “angels of Yahweh of hosts” (Mal. 2:7). This reservation of the primarily liturgical office, teaching and sacrament, to men is precisely in line with Genesis 2-3.
The New Covenant changes none of this. There is nothing new or odd about Mary’s sitting at Jesus’ feet, nothing strange about various “deaconesses” serving the Incarnate Tabernacle. Paul affirms that in Christ there is neither male nor female, but he equally insists on a distinction in liturgical roles, as we have seen. The Church is the new Temple, not a new synagogue, according to the repeated testimony of the New Testament. It is the place of the offering of living sacrifices and sacrifices of praise. It is the place of the new sacramental meal, the new bread and wine of the new Tribute and Peace Offerings (Lev. 2; 7:11-14; Num. 15). To be sure, wise women like Lydia, Priscilla, and others have much of value to say, and can instruct men like Apollos, but they do not do so in the sacramental liturgical context. To use modern parlance, there is nothing wrong with a Huldah as Sunday School teacher.
It is argued by some that Paul did not tackle the matter of women as ordained “priests” in the Church because of cultural reasons. The time was not right, it is said. To which we must reply that this is nonsense. Paul is not in the least hesitant to attack sabbaths, circumcision, food laws, calendar issues, and other matters of intense cultural and traditional relevance. He does not hesitate to offend Jew and Gentile alike. Had women’s ordination been part of the Divine agenda for the New Covenant, it would have been part of that list of extremely controversial issues.
The Special-Priestly Burden
Now, it is also sometimes argued that only men should serve as liturgical leaders because only men can stand iconically as representatives of the Father to Daughter Zion, and of Jesus Christ to the Bride. And this is true enough. But it can imply that men take these roles only for “merely symbolic” salvation-historical reasons. It can imply that women might just as well do it, but that it just happens that only men are symbolically right for the job. Such thinking does not do full justice to the Biblical conception. The reason that only men may be priests in this special sense (servant priests to the royal priesthood) is that men and women were created as two different kinds of liturgical beings. It is a matter of creation design, not merely a matter of historical role-playing.
Now, we are told that in glory there is no longer marriage and giving in marriage. After the resurrection, Jesus Himself will be the sole Priest and will lead His Bride in worship. Hence, in a sense, the fact that only men serve as special or servant priests in the Church is something limited only to this present phase of history. The present situation continues for as long as men and women are still in their creation bodies, not in their glorified bodies. But the present situation does not arise simply because Jesus was a man and so only a man should represent Him before the congregation. Though that is part of it, there is more to it than that. It is because God created men and women differently precisely for this liturgical reason.
Women will never serve as liturgical leaders, not in this age or in the age to come. But the time will come, in glory, when male priests, liturgical leaders, will joyfully give up this role and rejoice to have Jesus Himself as Sole Priest and Liturgical Leader. Far from coveting this position, women should rejoice that they don’t have to take up this burden, that they are already in glory in a real sense, for “the woman is glory of the man” (1 Cor. 11). Women already partly possess what men can only look forward to: glory and joyful submission to the leadership of the Supreme Male.
Trinity and Liturgy
The early Church recognized that the differences between men and women are related to the differences between the Son and the Spirit. And because Son and Spirit are uniquely different from one another, and not merely masks over something that is the same underneath, so men and women are uniquely different. The Church recognized that as Creator, the Spirit is not feminine but masculine over against the creation. But the Church also recognized in the Spirit an archetype of the feminine.
In God, the Son is Word and the Spirit is Glorifier. Language that initiates (“take and eat”) and guards (“thou shalt not”) is associated with the Son, while glory that brings to fullness is associated with the Spirit. This is what Paul says when he says that the woman is glory and that the man is not. Hair is glory, for it flows out from the body. The man is not to have glory-hair, but the woman is (1 Cor. 11).
To be sure, Son and Spirit, with Father, are God, and in that respect the same. But at the same time, the differences in “property” and “person” of the Father, Son, and Spirit are total. Those differences go “all the way down.” The differences fully permeate each Person as God, and are not differences added to some substratum of sameness. And the differences are liturgical. While the Father does serve the Son and Spirit in various ways, the way in which the Son and Spirit serve the Father is by worshipping Him. And they each worship the Father in their own specific and different ways: the Son by word and the Spirit by glory. And they do so together, not separately, each in His own way.
Initiation and Consummation
Word initiates; glory completes. Adam was made first, then Eve. Humanity began with a man; humanity ends as a Bride, the New Jerusalem. Jesus, who had no form or comeliness initiates the Church; but at the end the Bride is all glorious” within and without. At the end, human males will all be part of a glorious Bride who interacts with the Supreme Male, Jesus Christ.
These differences between initiation and glorification play out in history the differences between Son and Spirit. And they are integral to liturgy, which is the human reflection of the worship of the Father by the Son and the Spirit. Men alone may teach and lead in the dialogue of worship because they are created for this initiating purpose. But women must participate and thereby lend glory to worship. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and it is not good for worship to be done exclusively by men. The glorifying voices of women must be heard responsively in prayer and song.
It is the liturgical differences between men and women that account for their other differences, not the other way around. Men’s voices are generally an octave lower than women’s. A musician can tell you that lower notes are more foundational and higher notes are more decorative. The harmonic or “totality” movement in homophonic and polyphonic music is directed from the bass line, while the glory and decorative aspects of the music, including the melody, are in higher notes. Men’s voices (low notes) control the direction of the music, but women’s voices (high notes) glorify it.
On average women live longer than men. Women complete what men begin. Of course, women do initiate many things in the wider cultural area, but as a general rule, in a marriage or family, it is the women who will live to complete and bring the most glory to the situation. Take any normal home: The man provides the house, but it is the woman who is motivated to decorate it. (This is not to say that healthy heterosexual males may never be home-artists. We’re pointing to the norm.)
As a rule men are stronger than women. Their bones are larger and heavier. As a result, men tend to be the guardians and protectors of society, a society that is decorated and glorified by women.
It is the beauty and glory of women that inspires men. Men do things in order to win and please women. The history of literature, music, and art proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt. Young men “show off” and older men go out and do great deeds – initiating history over and over again – for the sake of women and their glory and beauty. (Think of the Trojan War, or Petrarch’s Laura, of Dante’s Beatrice, of Berlioz’s Harriet Smithson, of all the nude women painted by artists, of knightly romances, etc. etc. etc.)
Women bring the future, and hence future glory, by bearing children. Men do not. Men initiate the process, usually, and the man’s sexual organ displays that initiating function. But women complete the function of sexuality as it relates to the future, bringing the future to pass. Like their hair, the children that come from their bodies are their glory.
Examples could be multiplied, but what we have sought to demonstrate is that the physical and psychological differences between men and women arise from their differing liturgical purposes. They were created differently because they have different liturgical functions, and those differences play out in all the rest of life.
In conclusion, the differences between men and women exist because they are created reflections of the difference between the Son and the Spirit. The differences are foundationally liturgical in nature, because the Son and the Spirit worship the Father in two different ways. Eventually, in our Spirit-permeated glorified bodies, we shall all be Bride before the Ultimate Male, the Son, Jesus Christ. While we continue to exist in our first bodies, however, the liturgical distinction between male and female will continue to exist.
Far from coveting the office of liturgical leader, women should rejoice that they are not even eligible for it. “Be not many of you teachers, my brothers, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgement,” writes James (3:1). It is not a privilege so much as a burden to be a servant priest, and true servant priests will rejoice to lay down this burden when they stand before the True and Only Priest.
Back in the old days they understood this. They used to drag bishops to their ordination in chains.