Two Paths to Affirming Women’s Ordination

Tim Peck


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“Today is the completion of what was begun over 20 years ago with the ordination of women as priests. I am delighted with today’s result…The challenge for us will be for the church to model good disagreement and to continue to demonstrate love for those who disagree on theological grounds. Very few institutions achieve this, but if we manage this we will be living out more fully the call of Jesus Christ to love one another... It is not winner take all, but in love a time for the family to move on together.”                                             Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, July 14, 2014

With the Church of England’s recent vote to begin ordaining women as bishops*, the issue of women’s ordination has once again been in the news. Not surprisingly, much of the rhetoric in the blogosphere and social media has been polarized between complementarians who condemn this decision and egalitarians who applaud it.  One complementarian blogger characterized the decision as evidence that the Church of England is “spiraling down the burning sewer of apostasy.”

Statements like these fail to recognize the complexity of egalitarian thought. I’ve observed at least two different paths people may take to arrive at an egalitarian view of gender.  Failure to understand these two paths can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings, accusations, and pronouncements of heresy.  Although the boundary between them can be blurry at times, I think that distinguishing them from each other in broad brush terms might help to deescalate the rhetoric and contribute toward more virtue laden conversations.


The first I call “the path of rights.”  Egalitarians who travel this path often develop their convictions primarily from social science insights about how patriarchy damages society.  They emphasize how women have historically been excluded from society, their social identities embedded within the men they are most closely related to (usually fathers and husbands).  The “rights path” is part of a larger social vision that seeks to empower those historically marginalized and level the field of those wielding social power. Egalitarians on this path are quick to notice any area where women are excluded from participation solely based on their gender.

These egalitarians sometimes view the Bible as secondary to their cause.  Although they appreciate the fact that careful exegesis can support the full empowerment of women, such arguments are viewed as secondary.  In many cases, “rights path” proponents would be egalitarians regardless of the Bible’s teaching about gender.  If the Bible supports their view, even better.  However, such biblical support is not viewed as essential to their position.

When a “rights path” egalitarian encounters a complementarian, he or she is likey to engage the Bible negatively.  “You don’t forbid mixing different kinds of fabric as Leviticus 19:19 commands,” they might say, “and you don’t observe biblical food laws,” they could continue, “so why object to ordaining women?”  This stance seeks to persuade the complementarian to abandon their view of gender roles to the scrapheap of other presumed archaic biblical ideas.  Such proponents do not expect to find a coherent teaching on gender equality from the Bible, nor do they read the Bible in a nuanced redemptive historical fashion.


The second path could be called “the path of biblical authority.”  For these egalitarians, the unique authority of the Bible is their starting point.  Although they appreciate the arguments of “rights path” proponents and the insights the social sciences can shed on understanding the Bible, for “biblical authority” egalitarians the most important thing is the teaching of the Scriptures. Egalitarians on this path engage in rigorous analysis of such biblical texts as Genesis 1-3, Galatians 3, Romans 16, 1 Corinthians 11-14, Acts 2, and 1 Timothy 2.

These egalitarians insist that much of the Church has simply failed to understand the biblical message about gender.  Fueled by the Reformation principle Ecclesia semper reformanda est (“The Church always being reformed”), these egalitarians believe that when Scripture is heard in its context and with careful attention to matters of language and culture, readers will naturally embrace an egalitarian view of gender.  “Biblical authority” egalitarians expect to find a coherent framework for gender equality in the Bible since they view it as God’s revelation to humanity.  These egalitarians would embrace full equality for women regardless of the arguments for equal rights.  For these egalitarians, rights are not the primary issue; fidelity to Scripture is.

When a “biblical authority” egalitarian encounters a complementarian, he or she is likely to engage the Bible positively.  Rather than relying on rights rhetoric, such egalitarians are likely to use the language of calling, spiritual gifting, mutuality, partnership, and service.  For those who pay close attention to such dialogue, it should be evident that “biblical authority” egalitarians and complementarians have a shared ultimate authority, the biblical text. They may disagree (passionately, even) on how to best interpret and apply that text; however, both are convinced it is the final authority.

Complementarians often fail to recognize these two paths to becoming an egalitarian.  People following both paths can be found in many churches.  When this confusion occurs, complementarians worry that embracing egalitarianism will come at the high price of abandoning biblical authority.  On the horns of such a dilemma, biblical authority will always win out.

However, if “biblical authority” egalitarians are careful to nuance their arguments as arising from their commitment to shared biblical authority, such a concern can at least be neutralized. Complementarians who are committed to the Christian virtues of humility, charity, and patience should take the time to distinguish between these two paths and tone down their rhetoric when discussing gender equality with a “biblical authority” egalitarian.  Instead of worrying about the erosion of biblical authority, they can then focus on understanding and applying the biblical text.

My hope is that distinguishing between these two paths will lead to more positive conversations between complementarians and egalitarians.  I pray that the vitriolic rhetoric that so often characterizes these conversations may cease, leading to a hopeful, productive engagement with the biblical text for our common edification.

YOUR TURN: What path led you to your own perspective on egalitarianism? Did it fit into one of the pathways Tim has observed? Do you think the biblical authority pathway clarification and engaging the bible positively might be helpful in conversations about gender in the church?

*If you’re not familiar with the structure of the Church of England, this post by Ian Paul gives a good overview of the role of bishop.

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  • While I do believe in the biblical authority path, the path of rights is wrongly criticized. Paul demanded not to be flogged as his right as a Roman citizen.

    However, 1 Peter is quite clear that the abused slave and the abused wife have no rights. I could never find a verse in the Bible about beaten wives and the biblical path to safety. At some point women have to say to themselves, “I have the right to physical and emotional safety. I have the right to go to the bathroom, to speak out, to exit and enter the house, to earn money, to save money, to vote, to use birth control, etc. Each of these is a human right that has been denied women by their husbands at some time, and the Bible is silent on these issues.

    To not stand up for one’s own human rights is the path to body-broken insanity. Christians should never teach anyone that they should not seek the path of human rights.

    Furthermore, in my experience, complementarians have shaped the current “biblical text” in such a way that we no longer share the text. Just take the KJV as a base text. See how the ESV and the NLT have reformatted Gen. 3:16, 1 tim. 2:12, 1 Tim. 5:8 (”he” now refers to men only in this verse) 2 Tim. 2:2, Romans 16:7 and other issues of reparagraphing Ephesians 5 and so on. I know complementarians who sware up and down that 1 Tim. 3 has masculine pronouns in the Greek but there are none. I don’t think we share a Bible.

    Personally, I became an egalitarian because I was deprived of very basic human rights and I could not find biblical support for my dilemma. I needed to live, and I had to escape my previous life under complementarianism, not a situation outlined in the Bible or taught in church.

    I never cared about teaching men anyway. One church actually asked me to teach a group of men elementary Greek and I could not find a text simple enough. It never occurred to me to try and teach an adult male again.

    • Suzanne, thanks for these thoughts and for sharing some of your personal story. I would imagine there are many women both here in North America, but also in third world countries, who would resonate with your comments. As Jenny Rae Armstrong says (my paraphrase), if it doesn’t work for a woman in East Africa, it doesn’t work for me! I got a kick out of your comments about teaching men 🙂

      • Well, because of my work on interpreting 1 Tim. 2:12 specifically, one notable theologian accused me of wanting to “teach men.” I just laughed. I have my own life in the area of both linguistics and special needs children. I never regretted not teaching “men.” It wasn’t something I thought about.

        The problem, however, is that if one is not in the academy, one does not have access to support for one’s own studies. Not being able to be a professor of theology does restrict one’s access to resources and support for time commitment and writing, etc. So, more is withheld from women than just “teaching men.” Multiple resources are also withheld. That’s just how it is.

        It is sad to see so many Christian women’s websites go down the road of lipstick, shoes, gym classes and enduring the day at home with children. Glad that is not the case here.

        Just for fun, here is a poem I wrote about women wanting access to scholarship in Latin, Greek and Hebrew during the Reformation,

        Dawn’s doe desires the rushing water
        She is not filled by the stagnant pool
        Ancient wisdom’s anxious daughter
        Will not be this ages fool.

        Open those pages to her as well
        And keep not the seal of unknown forms
        The wandering mind will not dwell
        In shelter from the word-waged storms

        Text is the tumbled torrent where
        Three flow together in equal share.

        This is about how the Latin translation of 1528, by Pagnini revealed that Ps. 42 says, “the doe” and not the “hart.” Also Ps. 22 is to the tune of the doe of dawn. I could find no English Bibles and only one commentary on the Psalms that recognized this feminine voice in Ps. 42.

        The French on the other hand, translate “Comme la biche soupire apres les courants d’eau…” The feminine voice is not yet fully portrayed in English Bible translations.

    • Thanks for your candid thoughts Suzanne. Obviously I write this from the perspective of a man who has the privilege of being convictional about this issue but that does not have to live in the day to day injustice of having his calling questioned by others. I agree that justice is a major theme in scripture, and thus the rights path does become relevant. My intention with the blog was more strategic for communication between egalitarians and complementarians. Being in the Anglican communion myself, this is still an issue of much contention, among different provinces and diocese. I am happy you’ve found a path that is life giving.

    • Suzanne, read Malachi 2:16, which says in part, “I hate divorce and marital separation and him who covers his garment [his wife] with violence.” (AMP) This is the verse often used to guilt battered women into staying in dangerous relationships. Funny, how the second part is usually left out.
      Also, if you widen your search of the Scriptures to include verses about violence (not specifically “beaten wives”), you that God has plenty to say on the subject.

      • Yes, good point, MaryEsther. CBE has a great free article on the website about Scriptures that speak against abuse, too.

  • This is a very topical post for me – I was privileged to deacon at the service last year consecrating a woman to bishop in my Anglican Diocese in Australia. I was an equal rights activist before I was a theologian – but I feel God led me to this path. The two streams are are not seperable for me and I am uncomfortable with many of the commenters that seem to be seeing a clear distinction. I’m sure it’s good for me!

  • Thanks Tim, for this really well done clarification of motivation. I have definitely been on the Biblical authority path for the larger portion of my Christian life, which is why I was operating as a leader next to my husband for quite some time before I could acknowledge I was a de facto leader.

    Much of the problem is that we feel called to obey God in the day to day issues, as we hear Him speak to us, and yet our theology doesn’t fit that, so what we say and what we do doesn’t match up. After a while, when one is determined to live with integrity, that position becomes untenable.

    It is only as my biblical authority base began to change with further study, and, indeed, the sight of my eyes and the hearing of my ears making my own theological stance ridiculous, that I then became open to the Path of Rights. Obviously, the more I allowed myself to see, the more clearly I saw.

    The early teaching one experiences when they become a Christian is often what they stay with and it takes a determination to ‘think’ and not allow fear to block the thoughts that arise and have to be considered.

    Now, together with my husband, we have developed a church planting movement that boasts strong, godly, humble, wise and loving leaders of churches, both women and men, operating in multi generational settings. The younger generations in these churches hardly even understand there is a leadership/gender issue at all. God is good.

  • I spent over 30 years as a fundamentalist…Biblical authority was paramount. Oddly, it was the actions of Complementarian men that opened my eyes…I began to see that my support for their hierarchicalism was causing them to sin greatly. Their sense of entitlement and their arrogance began to ‘smell’ and i realized it was because women had forfeited their God-given instructions to preach the gospel…and by ‘submitting’ to men we had given them the message that they were right in THEIR INTERPRETATION about God’s view of women.

    In fact, I had believed that God’s view of women must be condemnatory or we wouldn’t be left out of all church structural positions. This too began to fester in my mind as I considered whether my view of God was even correct, until I decided to Google “let the women keep silent in the churches” and the rest is history.

    Suddenly I realized that people could be fundamentalists and egalitarians at the same time…and once my eyes were opened to see the arguments from scripture there was no going back…IT WAS NEVER A RIGHTS ISSUE TO ME, EVER….

    • Judy, this is such a succinct summing up, and it is my experience also. The issue is that in our deep desire to love and serve God, and subjugate ourselves to His will, we actually became enslaved by other people, particularly some men.

      Freedom came slowly, as revelation so often does, but it did come and I am free. As a result, so are many others, and many never got enslaved in the first place. We have a little pocked of an egalitarian movement in which men and women have equal roles in whatever context God has led and gifted them.

  • I am very much on the Biblical authority path, but haven’t been able to articulate the discomfort I felt listening to the arguments from folk, who I now realise are on the other path. With what you made clear I can be more sensitive in future discussions. Thanks so much.

  • “Such proponents do not expect to find a coherent teaching on gender equality from the Bible, nor do they read the Bible in a nuanced redemptive historical fashion.”
    Great point. I find people not reading the Bible in redemptive historical fashion to be a big (if not the biggest) reason why scripture has been used to oppress people throughout history.

  • God clearly intended that women were to be equal before the fall (Genesis references), and when Jesus died that I believe Galatians 3:28 and other actual people examples indicate clearly that the temple curtain was split all the way through for both genders. As stated earlier, there is so much in scripture to support biblical equality.

    When we resort to a another path, it’s perceived that we have admitted that we can’t get there through scripture. This is simply not true. I don’t think it is necessary to argue through a path for justice. It is simply not a sin to be a woman and a leader…and I would challenge anyone to point to any strong language that points to a Christian woman leader not inheriting the kingdom of God. Paul says “I do not permit a woman…”, nowhere do I see it say “God does not permit a woman…” and it certainly never calls her leadership an abomination.

  • I started on the biblical authority path, but see it all meshing together, since I see gender equality as a justice issue, and believe in a just God. As Tim mentioned, the lines between the two pathways can be blurry sometimes! Personally, I need my theology to match up to my social justice convictions, so appreciate all of the great work that has been done by egalitarian scholars

    • I’m with you Gail.

      I’ve heard some hierarchical complementarians who argue that biblical authority and accurate biblical interpretation in gender discussions are paramount, and distinct, from the concept of justice. Yet in the Bible we see that justice is one of God’s primary concerns for his people.

      As an egalitarian I also believe that biblical authority and accurate interpretation is vital, but these are not divorced from justice.

      When we recognize the authority of Scripture, and interpret it correctly (where possible) we see that the New Testament does teach equality; and the equality of all people, and equal opportunities for all people, regardless or race and gender, etc, is one major expression of justice.

      Having said that, I became an egalitarian by reading the Bible and believing it to be God’s uniquely inspired and authoritative word.

    • I’m the same. Interestingly my path for racial justice in SA started with social justice before I became a committed Christian (the path of rights); and my egalitarian path started with biblical authority, when I was in the church. I find that the two go hand-in-hand and I cannot say today that I am able to separate the two – they seem to balance. Am reminded of and convicted by Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

  • I definitely came to my egalitarian views through the biblical authority path and I am wondering why a “path of rights” person would even care if women could be ordained or not? It seems to me that if they don’t think the bible holds any weight on daily living they would not be very involved in any church no matter if it had ordained women in it or not. So I’m wondering why church issues would be something that this person would even waste their time on? It seems to me that if you took a “path of rights” view as a complementarian you would just be labeled a chauvinist and it would have nothing to do with the church either. I’m not saying the “path of rights” person wouldn’t be welcome in the church, of course they would be welcome, but I feel like if they are in the church shouldn’t they eventually come under the authority of scripture (and it’s egalitarianism) as they continue in their faith and grow in a relationship with Christ? I’m totally open to being wrong, but it’s just where my brain went while reading.

    • Hi Sarah: I think you’re right in much of the conservative evangelical world. However, in mainline churches, such as the Anglican Communion, there is a broad range of views of scriptural authority. Thus, I think there are quite a few “path of rights” people in these churches.

  • Very good and time article. With regard to “the path of biblical authority”, from a Roman Catholic perspective, I think that St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” provides a solid foundation for resolving the issue.

    This possibility is explored here in the context of solidarity-sustainability issues:

    This is a visceral issue that cannot be resolved by reasoning alone, but critical feedback would be very much appreciated. Let us pray that the church will be able to discern the difference between revealed truths and patriarchal ideology.

    God bless,

    • Agreed Luis. Great to hear from a Catholic perspective. Many of those in the Anglican Communion who oppose the Church of England’s decision are not opposed to women’s ordination as much as they are concerned that this decision will hurt ecumenical relations with Rome. That’s a topic for another article.

    • Luis, I think you hit the nail on the head when you commented “This is a visceral issue that cannot be resolved by reasoning alone”. There is really no other explanation for why this is still an issue. In my opinion the “difficult” texts have been shown to be questionable enough that they should not be used to limit women’s full inclusion in the church, and the other reasons given have to do more with tradition and culture than with scripture. Looking forward to browsing the link you sent!

      • I think egalitarians often don’t understand that. It’s not about some intellectual debate over biblical interpretation. These kinds of debates rarely change minds because people already have their minds made up, one way or another. In a way, it’s a lot like the evolution vs. creationism debate. Both sides claim they have definitive evidence, but neither one changes the other’s mind because each side has already decided which position they want to take, based on their worldview.

        Having grown up in a very conservative household, I can testify to this firsthand. When I was an adult, I stumbled upon some egalitarian literature. The arguments concerning those troublesome verses sounded valid. However, it still took me quite a while before I had the courage to change sides. Why? Because it just didn’t feel right to have a woman taking a man’s position. After all, didn’t God create women as nurturers? Isn’t it their natural desire to focus on the home? And man’s natural desire is to be out there, exploring and dominating. So of course, it’s natural that men should run the church while women do the nurturing functions, such as teach the children, organize potlucks, etc.

        I recently read an editorial in a Christian publication that disagreed with the C of E’s position. The author didn’t even attempt to argue bible verses, but confined himself to the cultural argument. “The Church has always done it that way. How can we just throw our history out?” He also spent an entire paragraph affirming women’s Christ-like love for their husbands and children, and therefore how they didn’t need to model Christ as a minister. Most telling, however, he specifically talked about women acting like men, that is, becoming prey to the temptation of wanting to dominate people and impose their views upon others. He referenced some local case of a female bishop disregarding the expressed wishes of others and instead going with what she wanted to do on a controversial issue.

        I do not write the above to shame the author. Indeed, I feel very sorry for him. I simply include it because that editorial exemplifies the world I grew up in. It was never about the Bible. I can honestly say I never heard those verses in 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, etc. until I became an adult. Instead, the adults around me appealed to culture and the nature of things. Men are created one way. Women are created another. Look how feminists have destroyed the country, what with all the divorces, single mothers, and children growing up to become bad adults. What more evidence did they need?

        I’m sorry for the length of this post. I just want egalitarians to understand, though. You can talk all day long about dueling bible interpretations, but it’s just that: a duel that the other side can walk away from. The only thing that really changes minds is personal experience. In my case, the egalitarian interpretation sounded true, but it wasn’t until I came to know some women ministers that I came to think maybe, just maybe, I could be wrong.

  • This is VERY helpful, Tim. The distinction in the paths has helped identify why I was having time during a period when I attempted to jump from one to the other. It clarifies some of my own struggles in trying to engage a church I loved but they had decided on a soft complementarian position after much study and discussion (which I appreciated).

    After 6 yrs of witnessing the failure of their own publicly stated position, I started a conversation with the leaders to share my disappointment and ask for reconsideration of their position which I felt was unsustainable. I learned this: once a church has invested time and effort in studying the issue, they are less likely to revisit their conclusions. Even in the 6 yrs that passed so much more scholarship had come out in support of egalitarianism but they were unwilling to consider it. I believe the resistance was more about trying to find a compromise to keep members (and the elders) on both sides of the issue somewhat happy than actually wanting biblical authority.

    Towards the end of our yearlong conversation, I read a book advocating the “rights” path using “justice” terminology. For most of my journey I had focused on biblical authority, not rights. This book jarred my thinking as I considered those arguments. But I had a hard time going down that path. I knew instinctively that the path would shut down conversation because in essence I would be accusing the elders of injustice, of sin. And I wanted to continue the conversation. Sure enough when I mentioned the word “justice” an elder suggested I should probably find another church.

    And in the end, they didn’t want a conversation. So I left. I was too far down the path of biblical authority that screamed equality and mutuality.

    Thanks again, Tim.

  • Tim, thank you for this really excellent post! There is much to think about, and I think it will be especially useful as a “check” when debating with complementarians.

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