Women Bishops: It’s About the Bible, not Fake ideas of Progress

copublished, with permission, with The Times, 23 November 2012

Exhorting the CoE to ‘get with the programme’ dilutes the argument for women bishops

“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasps a feckless official in one of C. S. Lewis’s stories. “Have you no idea of progress, of development?”

“I have seen them both in an egg,” replies the young hero. “We call it Going bad in Narnia.”

Lewis nails a lie at the heart of our culture. As long as we repeat it, we shall never understand our world, let alone the Church’s calling. And until proponents of women bishops stop using it, the biblical arguments for women’s ordination will never appear in full strength.

“Now that we live in the 21st century,” begins the interviewer, invoking the calendar to justify a proposed innovation. “In this day and age,” we say, assuming that we all believe the 18th-century doctrine of “progress”, which, allied to a Whig view of history, dictates that policies and practices somehow ought to become more “liberal”, whatever that means. Russia and China were on the “wrong side of history”, Hillary Clinton warned recently. But how does she know what “history” will do? And what makes her think that “history” never makes mistakes?

We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.

“We call it Going bad in Narnia.” Quite.

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.

What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.

So what is the real argument? The other lie to nail is that people who “believe in the Bible” or who “take it literally” will oppose women’s ordination. Rubbish. Yes, I Timothy ii is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else. That, in any case, is not where to start.

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans xvi, 7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous “progress” of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise — especially the promise of transformed gender roles.

The promise of new creation, symbolised by the role of Mary Magdalene in the Easter stories, is the reality. Modern ideas of “progress” are simply a parody. Next time this one comes round, it would be good to forget “progress” — and ministerial “programmes” — and stick with the promise.

7 thoughts on “Women Bishops: It’s About the Bible, not Fake ideas of Progress”

  1. Hi Alison Joy

    Thankyou for your well thought out response, I need to clarify for you that I also believe in submission, but I see it just a little differently from you and Andrew, I understand that my calling was to submit to God and no other , and in so doing that leads me to “serve” my husband (oh yes I forgot yes I am married once widowed twice married) . The way in which I serve my husband will vary according to need and sometimes the need is about being an independent person in my instance for God. There will be other times when it may be different and of course it is equal and reciprocal in different ways (after all who else is going to make the morning cuppa ?)

    I understand your point that the way in which a Muslim woman may submit is different to the way in which a Christian may submit, but sometimes I feel that the edges get blurred for the preacher and for the receiver of the word and that also can apply to personal application of the word. There is much in the gospel , which supports equal loving relationships , there is also plenty in the old testament that does not.

    When I referred to cultural sensitivity that would include sensitivity to the issues women face in life and in relation to Christ, I hear you as you explain the journey towards believing submission is the right thing for you , I have made a similar journey like may others I guess . I cannot accept that a woman is not allowed to teach about Christ because Jesus has used many women in preaching sometimes low key and other times in more prominent roles. There might be a way of interpreting preaching differently, you know like everyone assumes that preaching meant saying the words from a fixed plinth or soapbox, but actually preaching is much more complex than that. Yes Preaching the gospel means sharing the words from the bible, but in so doing that also requires action, that is where it gets a bit complicated, there are many things said in words or as an allegory God communicates with us in that way sometimes you know the “roar of thunder” I am not sure I follow the belief that weather is a message from God always but certainly the explanations in the gospel use the natural global events to explain the feelings of God. It is tangible . Submission it seems to me is more about dying to self or putting our own desires on hold in order that we are free to serve one another, but I understand that to be a two way equal process between the giver and receiver. I understand that sometimes we choose to put the other first, this is different from submitting which says ” I am not worth anything” when we choose to put another first in the words of Elton John “its no sacrifice” (he probably got that from the bible) Being a living sacrifice is so that we can serve God.This is a bit long winded sorry. Thankyou for the link , it has been nice to share with you.

  2. Hi Angela

    I’m new to this thread, and have just read your response above. Forgive me if there are bits that have already been covered and I repeat.

    I am a woman and really appreciate your focus on Christ wanting us to love one another from the heart and to make sure all our treated equally. I do believe that men and women are of equal value in His sight and that He is very much against forced submission, women being fearful, domestic violence, rape etc. These are indeed heinous acts which feature no where on God’s agenda. To be denied communication as a woman (or man) is also a very hard thing to bear. I experienced this to a small degree in my earlier life and it hurt and wounded me. Thank God He healed me and has given me back my voice.

    I have since come to believe though (and I didn’t always think this way), that the word ‘submission’ is not a bad word as many of us have come to believe. As I walk with the Lord, it gives me great joy to submit to His ways, knowing that they are good and best for me. I didn’t always feel that way as my trust with people had been broken so to carry out something for the Lord which I found hard initially because I could not see how it would result, was a challenge. I have since come to see that because of the love of God, I can perfectly trust Him and submit to His Word in trust. This is the same too with my husband (I am the wife of Andrew Chapman who has been writing on this thread 🙂 ). God has appointed him as leader of our household and although he makes mistakes as he is human, I submit to him because I know that he is seeking to love me as Christ loves the Church. It helps that he is closely walking with the Lord and a prayerful man. It is a huge thing to choose to submit to your husband because of disappointment or fear but as the man loves his wife as Christ loves the church, he should seek the best for his household and it should be reflective of that. I do understand that many men struggle in this area of true, godly leadership or misuse the authority which can lead to all kinds of things – this for me is the MAJOR difference between Christianity and Islam. In Islam, men are not seeking to follow this biblical pattern in marriage – Christ loving the church (laying down His life). I’m not sure if you are married or what your situation is, but I would like to recommend a wonderful, godly, biblical website that talks a lot more and in detail about true submission in marriage rather than the image that has crept into our minds as a result of confused teaching and stories of terrible abuse. Here is the website: http://www.peacefulwife.com This website also addresses separate issues such as abuse etc. It has been a huge help and blessing to me but it takes courage as a woman to read it and perhaps see inside our own hearts and our own sin. It also gives some wonderful thoughts on headcovering, something that I too believe is relevant for these days ‘because of the angels’ and to counteract the errors of feminism which can greatly affect our mindsets and blind us to the loving order that God sets forth in scripture.

    God bless you on this journey. Thank God for the example of Jesus!

    Alison Joy x

  3. You see that is what worries me! L am acutely aware that your view is a common one in some christian circles , it is indeed the nearest to the muslim way of thinking that you can get. I am not offended by pauls words because they were relevant for the transitional period that they were in, remember Christ was preaching to convert people from suppressing one anther and from the ways of violence which they were using in order to surpress women and any one who did not agree with them really. I find it interesting how everyone who argues the case in this way omits to acknowledge. the time when paul also preached about women not needing to cover their heafs in one place because he recognised it was their culture, he was sensitive to that. We live . In a violent fallen world Christ taught us love one another as I have loved you.This was an unconditional statement, so as with all the gospel it is about personal application relevant to the needs of those we serve we need to be lights in the darkness that says I . Respect your views opinions and teachings in the home and in public because that is about the genuine soul of the person. It is not safe teaching to say to people that the preacher of the man or woman cannot be questioned on their teaching. There is a direct link to domstic violence . And religios obsession which is what not having the ability to consider a woman as equal is, it is an unhealthy obsession based on the controllers inability to give a believer fre will to both respond to and preach the gospel. Do you really believe that christ would have sanctioned thst and given his blessing. There is a reason for the book of revelation being the last book in the bible and that is that after everyone mentioned in it hadade their journeys in a modern of putting it lessons had been learned and Christ died to show us how to love one another as equals in living worshipping praying and serving. I appreciate that you may find it difficult to see the correlation between forced submissuon and domestic violence but now fortunatelymost people can see it particuarly in other religions where women are forced to stay quiet, if you have ever been in a position where you have been denied communication or denied the right to being heard you would understand. I makes me very sad and occassionally very fearful. J esus tells us I am no t supposed to be afraid or even feel as though I am trapped so on those grounds I . Implore you to see the whole of the gospel rather than a preffered selection of verses which is the ones that make you most comfortable, but I dont think jesus would want you to be uncomfortable eiher,jesus wants us to respect each other as equals I cant say halleluiah in the wayyou say it. However I can say halleluia that we are able to study together and work towards understanding the relevance of the gospelnot just for ourselves but for those we share it with. I eant to share without fear

  4. Hi Angela,

    If you are offended by ‘which prohibits women teaching in the church of Jesus Christ’, then are you also offended by Paul’s ‘I do not permit a woman to teach’, which seems to be more or less the same?

    I don’t know why you connect this prohibition with rape and violence. As one who believes the bible, as evangelical Christians do by definition, I would expect that the more we submit to God’s instructions in these matters, the more blessed we will be and the less evil there will be in our midst. You might like to have a look at a paper by Steven Tracy called ‘Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: challenging common misconceptions’. One research finding it cites is that ‘Conservative Protestant men who attend regularly are found to be the least likely group to engage in domestic violence’.

    The same scriptures which instruct women to submit to their husbands, also tells us men to love our wives, even as Christ loves the church, and this obviously doesn’t involve being violent towards them. Hallelujah, the Lord is gracious and kind and loving to all.

    In Him,


  5. Said by a man , who clearly does not recognise the offense of his own words. Of course it is not burdensome if you are not the one being surpressed or your not the women being raped or threatened with assaults. It is not burdensome if you see yourself as the person that others submit to, in a family where mutual respectof age and gender is apparent submission is mutual unlike a family where a person says a person must submit to another because jesus says so, that is not free will and therefore a sin in biblical language and domestic violence in worldly language. Even if the woman does not object because she does not recognise it as abuse, most of us abuse survivors did not know we were abused. That is the blessing of revelation the real blessing.

  6. ‘Yes, I Timothy ii is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else.’

    διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω, οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός, ἀλλ’ εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ. (2:12)

    There are three clauses here:

    διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω – I do not permit a woman to teach

    οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός – nor to exercise authority over a man

    ἀλλ’ εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ – but to be in quietness or silence.

    There is only one word here for which there is a paucity of data, and that is αὐθεντεῖν, in the second clause. It appears nowhere else in the bible, but it does appear a few times in the relevant time period, and the general sense is not too hard to determine. The parallelism with verse 11 makes it fairly obvious that it is contrasted with being in submission.

    But any doubt there may be about the exact sense of the second clause hardly affects the first clause, which prohibits women teaching in the church of Jesus Christ. Hallelujah, His commandments are not burdensome, and are given to us for our good.



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