MAN, WOMAN, AND PRIESTHOOD
(Edited by Peter Moore, SPCK London, 1978)
4. The Bearing of Holy Scripture
ROGER BECKWITH (b. 1929) studied at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and Tyndale Hall, Bristol. After two curacies he became tutor at Tyndale Hall in 1959, and in 1963 Librarian of Latimer House, Oxford, of which he is now Warden. A member of the Anglican-Orthodox Commission, he was a consultant in the preparation of the report The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (1972). He has written a number of books on liturgical subjects, and edited Why Not; Priesthood and the Ministry of Women (1976).
We are passing through a period when any appeal to the theology of the Bible attracts quizzical smiles. 'Which of the many theologies in the Bible are you appealing to?' one is likely to be asked, why do you prefer it to the other theologies there?' 'What leads you to think that such ancient modes of thought could possibly make contact with the problems of today?' One is free to suspect that the scepticism about the unity and relevance of the Bible implied in these questions will prove to be only a passing intellectual fashion: that it has come about as an extreme reaction against the weaker features of the Biblical Theology movement of a few years ago, and that its one-sidedness will become more and more apparent as time goes on. Nevertheless, the questions raised are not in fact difficult to answer, and, in order to remove all legitimate grounds for criticism of our undertaking, we will begin by answering them.
Our inquiry falls into two parts, the first being the relation of the sexes and the second the authority of the Christian ministry. In the first part, our material will be mainly drawn from the early chapters of the book of Genesis, as expounded in the writings of Paul. Here, then, the theology is Pauline, though Paul is indebted to the Pentateuch. In the second part, our material will be drawn from the Acts and Epistles generally, interpreted against their Old Testament and Jewish background. Here the theology is one shared by Paul and others, who agree because they are making similar use of the same pro-Christian material. The reason for concentrating on these parts of the Bible, or these theologies, is that here the subjects which concern us receive the most attention. Other parts of the Bible are not ignored, but their teaching on the subjects in hand turns out to be entirely harmonious with that of our major authorities. As to the relevance of this teaching today: despite the problems about the early chapters of Genesis which are raised by scientific inquiry, it remains true that no aspects of the relation of the sexes could be more important at any era than their creation by God, their fall into sin, and their restoration through Christ; and similarly, that no aspect of the Christian ministry could be more important at any era than its New Testament origins. And if we wish for light upon these vital aspects of our two topics of inquiry, it is to the theologians of the Bible that we must look for it.
But why two topics, and why these particular two? Simply because none of the biblical writers addresses himself directly to the question of the ordination of women, but only indirectly. It is a great mistake however to conclude from this that the New Testament has nothing to say which bears upon the ordination of women, and that the question must therefore be decided, not on biblical or theological but on other (perhaps sociological) grounds. For the New Testament teaching on the relation of the sexes and the New Testament teaching on the authority of the Christian ministry have important principles in common, and these will in due course enable us to see what answer ought to be given to the question of ordaining women, and why.
The Relation of the Sexes, in Creation, Fall, and Redemption
Embarrassment about the opening chapters of Genesis is less common in the Christian Church today than it was half a century ago. It is now clear that natural science is more tentative about questions of human origins than used to be supposed, that the biblical account has hidden depths of meaning never noticed by unreflective readers, and that consequently a clash between the Bible and science is not necessarily involved. Christians are therefore more concerned than they formerly were to draw out the religious lessons of the Creation and Fall narratives, recognizing that we have here not idle tales, nor yet just parables about human nature in general, but also the necessary prelude to human history; and that this, however mysterious, provides indispensable clues to the interpretation of all that follows.
The first chapter of Genesis relates in an orderly fashion how God created the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, vegetation, and the various classes of living beings that were to inhabit the sea and the land. Last of all he creates man:
Then God said, 'Let us make man [Heb. adam] in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.' So God created man [adam] in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it' (Gen. 1.26 8).
Man, then, is the crown of God's creative work. Not only is he created last, but he alone is created in the image and likeness of God, so that he may exercise dominion on God's behalf over all else that God has created. He is given the generic name of adam, man, but he is created in two sexes, male and female, both of which share in the image of God and in the commission to role the lower creation; and he is created in two sexes so that together they may be fruitful and multiply and may fill the earth which they and their race are to rule. There is emphasis here on the unity of male and female, and on their equality, both in relation to God and in relation to the lower creation.
The second chapter of Genesis is generally regarded as having a different origin from the first chapter. However this may be, its present function in the book is to build upon the first, concentrating attention upon the chief of God's works, humanity. Man, as the second chapter represents him, is created an intelligent being with the capacity for discrimination and speech, so that he may not just tend the vegetable creation, but also distinguish and name the members of the animal creation:
Then the Lord God formed man [Heb. adam] of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being... And the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it . . . So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for [the] man there was not found a helper fit for him (Gen. 2.7,15, l9f).
He is also created a moral being, capable of obeying the commands of God:
And the Lord God commanded the man [adam], saying, 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die' (Gen. 2.16f).
There is, however, in chapter two some differentiation between the two sexes. The statements just quoted refer in the first instance to the male, the female not having yet been created; and it is to the male that the term adam, man, is in this chapter specially appropriated—indeed in verse 20, where 'Adam' is without the article, the term may already be used for a proper name, as in subsequent chapters (Gen. 3.17, 21; 4.25; 5.1, 3-5). It seems, therefore, that the male is depicted here as representative man. However, chapter two immediately goes on to emphasize that the male is not independent of the female. As his helper, he really needs her:
Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him' (Gen. 2.18).
Still less is the female of any other nature than the male—on the contrary, she is made from his very being:
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs, and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.' Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen. 2.21-4).
So the chapter concludes much like chapter one, by stressing the unity and equality of the two sexes, over against the animal creation, and by speaking of the institution of marriage, which this unity and equality make possible.
The measure of differentiation between the sexes which is seen in chapter two continues in chapter three, with its account of man's temptation and fall. The man and the woman both fall but the way that this comes about may be significant. The tempter approaches the woman, not the man, inviting her to doubt the goodness and truthfulness of God (Gen. 3.1-5). The woman listens to the tempter, and disobeys God's command (Gen. 3.6). She in turn approaches her husband, who hearkens to the voice of his wife rather than to the command of God and, instead of setting a good example to his helper, follows her bad example (Gen. 3.6, 17). The tempter, the woman, and the man each receive their individual sentence from God, in accordance with their share in the transaction (Gen. 3.11-19). Part of the woman's sentence is: 'Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you' (Gen. 3.16).
To what extent the narratives of these three chapters are symbolical and to what extent literal is a question very difficult to answer, if not impossible. However, one is able to see, even without answering this question, that the chapters have religious lessons to teach about the condition of man as a creature of God fallen into sin.(1) It is the religious lessons of the three chapters that the New Testament, and especially the Pauline literature, draw out, and several of the lessons concern the relationship between the sexes.
The earliest Pauline passage of the kind is the first part of 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul insists that the Christian women of Corinth should not break the custom of wearing a veil in public. This custom was widespread in the Graeco-Roman world and was doubtless reinforced in the Church by Jewish infiuence. In Jerusalem at the time, women only left the house with their heads covered by a double veil,(2) and in Alexandria Philo speaks of 'the headdress [Gk. epikranon,] ... the symbol of modesty [aidos, modesty, respect], regularly worn by women who are wholly innocent' (De Specialibus Legibus 3.56). This being the Jewish background, it is not surprising to hear Paul urging the Corinthians to 'hold fast the traditions, even as I delivered them to you' (1 Cor. 11.2), and saying of the disuse of the veil 'we have no such custom, neither the churches of God' (v. 16). As long as the custom of veiling found any echo in Gentile society, and as long as breach of it could look like immodesty, Paul would doubtless have continued to take the same line.
In this connection, he draws an instructive parallel between the veil and long hair, and between the bared head and short hair (or a shaven crown). One can see a congruity here, he says (vv. 4-6, 13-15). 'Nature' [Gk. phusis] itself teaches us that long hair is a 'dishonour' to a man but a 'glory' to a woman; and it is a glory to her not only because it is beautiful, but because it is a 'covering' [peribolaion, covering, cloak]. The lack of such a covering 'disgraces' [kataischunõ] the head that needs it, but the presence of such a covering 'disgraces' the head that does not need it. We may regard veiling in the same light, says Paul. There is a connection here with his discussion of clothing in the next chapter (1 Cor. 12.23f). The purpose of modest clothing is to make 'honourable' and 'comely' those parts of the body which are less honourable and uncomely. In a somewhat similar way, the women's modest veil bestows honour on her head, whereas the man's head has this honour by nature. His dignity does not require such a covering, and would be dishonoured by seeming to require it.
More important, however, than the contemporary mode of expressing female modesty is the principle of female modesty itself. In support of this principle, Paul appeals to two arguments. The first is the doctrine of the Trinity:
But I would have you know, that the head [Gk. kephalé] of every man [aner, male] is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor. 11.3, RV).
Here the term 'head' denotes not 'source' or 'origin' (which the plural, though not the singular, can mean in secular Greek) but 'superior dignity and authority'. Just as, in the family, 'the husband is the head of the wife', who must therefore 'be subject' or 'subordinate' to him (Eph. 5.23f), so, in the congregation, the man is the head of the woman, who must similarly be subordinate.(3) She will not, therefore, behave herself immodestly in the congregation in any respect, which certainly means that she will not undertake offices of authority over men. But note that there is nothing degrading in this subordination. If the woman is subordinate to the man, the man is subordinate to Christ, which is no degrading relationship; moreover Christ is subordinate to God (the Father), and there is certainly nothing degrading in the internal relationships of the Holy Trinity. This teaching about the subordination of the Son to the Father is one to which Paul returns later in the epistle (1 Cor. 15.27f); it is a subordination wholly consistent with the unity and equality of nature between the Father and the Son; and it provides the highest possible model for the relationship between the sexes.(4)
Paul's second argument for the principle of female modesty is drawn from the doctrine of creation. It is here that he expounds the opening two chapters of Genesis. He writes:
For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man (1 Cor. 11.7-9).
It should be noted that in this passage the subordination of the woman is not argued from her sentence at the Fall, but from the manner of her very creation. In Genesis 2 we read that she was made after the man, from his side, and this leads Paul to say that 'man was not made from woman, but woman from man'. In the same chapter we read that she was made as a helper fit for man, and this leads Paul to say, 'Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man'. Moreover, the differentiation between the two sexes which we find in the second chapter of Genesis is read back by Paul into the first chapter also, where we learn that male and female were created in the image of God, to rule over the lower creation. Even here, says Paul, there is a difference, for man was created first, in the direct image of God, whereas woman was created later, from man, and so receives the image of God indirectly. The hint for this may have been taken from Genesis 5.1-3, where we read that God created Adam in his image and likeness, and Adam begot a son in his own image and likeness. Paul takes up this teaching later in the epistle, where he says that we have all 'borne the image' of the first Adam (1 Cor. 15.49), and here he says that it applies to Adam's wife as well as to Adam's children, since she likewise was created out of his body.(5) Three verses of our passage remain to be considered:
For this cause ought the woman to have [a sign of] authority on her head, because of the angels. Howbeit, neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, in the Lord. For as the woman is of [ek, from] the man, so is the man also by [dia, through] the woman; but all things are of [ek] God (1 Cor. 11.10-12, RV).
The 'authority' in v. 10 is normally understood to be that of the man, the veil on the woman's head being the symbol of this authority. Dr M. D. Hooker has argued that the authority on the woman's head must be the woman's own, and that it refers to the authority to pray and prophesy (v. 5).(6) But there are many difficulties in the way of this interpretation. There is no real reason why the authority on someone's head, any more than the blood on someone's head, needs to be his own. The passage is not concerned with the authority to pray and prophesy, but with modest apparel when doing so. The adversative conjunction 'howbeit' [plan] comes very awkwardly after an assertion of female authority. And we have seen that in contemporary Judaism the veil was not a symbol of the woman's authority but of her modesty. The reference to the angels has been variously understood, but may mean that angels are present at Christian worship and ought to see Christian women behaving modestly.
The other two verses (w. 11 and 12), introduced by 'howbeit', are shown by this introduction to be a qualification, designed to safeguard the foregoing statements against misinterpretation. What the verses say is that Christians must recognize the interdependence of the sexes. The woman needs the man, but the man also needs the woman. It is true that woman was first created from man, but in later generations man is born through woman. And both sexes are dependent upon God even more than upon each other, for he created them both.
These words are not only a healthy check to any overweening idea of male superiority, but are a commentary on what has preceded. The necessity for Paul to safeguard in this way what he has said about veiling, about the doctrine of the Trinity, about the doctrine of Creation, about the symbol of authority, shows clearly that we have been right in interpreting the preceding verses in the traditional way, as teaching the subordination of the woman to the man.
Paul's next discussion of the relationship of the sexes, in the light of Genesis, comes in chapter 14 of the same epistle. This chapter is wholly devoted to the subject of corporate worship in the Christian Church, and towards the end of it he writes:
As in all the churches of the saints, women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate [hapotassomai, be subordinate, submissive], as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? (1 Cor. 14.33-6).
The opening phrase here may belong with what has preceded, rather than with what follows, and if so it relates to a different subject. However, the appeal to universal Christian practice is repeated in the questions at the end, where it is implied that the practice mentioned, that of women keeping silent, has emanated from Palestine. Once again therefore, as in chapter 11, we have Paul insisting on the maintenance of a Jewish-Christian custom; and, as before, it is a custom which was in fact congruous with Greek custom, and which had therefore quite naturally been carried over into the Gentile churches. Among the Jews of that time, men were strongly discouraged from speaking in public to women, which is why the practice of Jesus caused surprise (John 4.27);(7) but for women to speak in public to men was judged so immodest, the Mishnah tells us, that a wife who did it was divorced without receiving the compensation agreed in her marriage settlement—it was as bad as her going out with her hair unbound or spinning in the street (Ketuboth 7.6). One can see from this that the principle on which Paul is insisting in chapter 14 is the same principle on which he was insisting in chapter 11, namely, female modesty. Christian women are not to act immodestly; they are to show due subordination to men; and this means, in terms of first-century custom, that they will not address men in public, either in the Christian congregation or elsewhere, even for the purpose of asking questions.
In support of his teaching, Paul appeals to the Law: 'as even the Law says'. 'The Law' means the Pentateuch (or possibly the Old Testament), this being the literature which embodies the Law of Moses; and Paul is usually thought to be referring to Genesis 3.16, 'your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you', which is part of the sentence pronounced on Eve at the Fall and is the Old Testament passage most explicitly teaching female subordination. If so, it is noteworthy that Paul does not consider Eve's sentence to have been abrogated by Christ's redemption. This is doubtless because of his belief that female subordination did not begin at the Fall, but was only reinforced then. As we saw when examining chapter 11, he holds that female subordination goes back behind the Fall to the Creation itself and extends outside the relationship between husband and wife to the whole relationship between man and woman.
If Paul did not allow women to ask men questions in church, as our passage indicates, it follows a fortiori that he did not allow women to teach men, and it seems unlikely that he allowed women to lead men in prayer. This has caused some to assert that the present passage is in conflict with 1 Corinthians 11.5, only three chapters earlier, or even that the present passage must be an interpolation, despite the fact that it occurs (with some variation of order) in all texts of the epistle. There is no need to resort to such improbable conjectures. A more likely explanation is that in 1 Cormthians 11.5 Paul is expressing no judgement on the Corinthian women's practice of praying and prophesying, since his subject there is not prayer or prophecy but the wearing of the veil; and if this is so, he may not have approved of women leading in prayer, and may only have approved of their prophesying because prophecy (unlike teaching) had always been an extraordinary gift, exempt from normal rules.(8)
We have seen that Genesis 3.16 is probably referred to in 1 Corinthians 14. Its teaching also underlies a number of statements in later epistles. Three of these statements, like Genesis 3.16 itself, deal with the relationship between husband and wife. They are the following:
Wives, be subject [hupotassomai] to your husbands. as is fitting in the Lord (Col. 3.18).
Wives, be subject [hupotussomai] to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands . . . And let the wife see that she respects [phobeomai, respect, fear] her husband (Eph. 5.22-4, 33).
. . . train the young women . . . to be . . . submissive [hupotussomai] to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited (Titus 2.4f).(9)
Each of these passages is a further reminder that Genesis 3.16 is not abrogated by Christ's redemption. The harshness which the Fall brought to the wife's subordination is indeed relieved: for the first passage immediately continues, 'Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them' (Col. 3.19), while the omitted verses of the second passage give the same teaching at length, setting before husbands the example of Christ's love for the Church, and stressing the unity of husband and wife in language quoted from Genesis 2 (Eph. 5.25-33). Yet even in this context, significantly enough, Paul sees no inconsistency in insisting on the subordination of the wife to the husband. The subordination remains, though transformed by a willing spirit on the wife's part and a loving spirit on the husband's.
The final passage which applies the teaching of Genesis to the relationship between the sexes comes in 1 Timothy 2. Here we are once more taken back from the family circle to the meeting of the congregation. We read:
I desire then that in every place the men [aner, male] should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly [meta aidous, with modesty] and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair . . . Let a woman learn in silence [hésuchia] with all submissiveness [hupotagé, submissiveness, subordination]. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority [authenteó) over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim. 2.8-14).
In this passage the themes of dressing modestly and keeping silence in public reappear, and arguments similar to those used in 1 Corinthians are drawn both from the Creation and from the Fall(l0) It here becomes explicit that it is the men who are to lead in prayer, and that the women must not teach or exercise authority, at any rate in mixed congregations. The principle underlying these regulations is very clearly stated: once again it is the subordination of the woman to the man. The practice of the Jewish synagogue provides a background: there the ruler of the synagogue used to choose those in the assembly who should preach, lead in prayer, or read the lessons, and an ancient quotation in the Babylonian Talmud states that the reason why he did not call upon women to read the lessons was 'out of respect for the congregation' (Megillah 23a).
Against this emphatic and reiterated teaching on the due relationship of the sexes, found in five epistles written from about A.D. 54 onwards, opponents of female subordination are accustomed to set one passage, where Paul is supposed to teach a different and higher doctrine. Remarkably enough, the passage in question, containing this new and revolutionary insight, comes not in one of the last of Paul's epistles, but in what may well be the first of them, perhaps written as early as A.D. 48, the Epistle to the Galatians. The passage runs as follows:
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal. 3.2-9).
It is noteworthy that most commentators on Galatians, e.g. Lightfoot, Burton (ICC), and Ridderbos, fail to find here the alleged conflict with the other Pauline epistles; and the last-named points out why. He observes that what is taught in this passage about the abolition of distinctions must be understood in its context. The context is one of salvation—more precisely, of sonship, faith, union with Christ, baptism, and inheritance of the promises to Abraham. For these blessings, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female are all alike eligible. All alike can be saved, all alike can be baptized, without distinction. But whether there are other distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, which still remain, the passage neither says nor implies. To this question one must look elsewhere in the Pauline literature for an answer.
It is now time to draw some conclusions about the relation of the sexes. We have seen that, both in Genesis and in Paul, man and woman are viewed as in some respects alike, in other respects different. As regards their likenesses, both sexes were created by God; they both share in the image of God, in dominion over the lower creation, and in parenthood; they are both of the same nature, distinct from that of the animals, for woman was made from man, and she alone is fit to be the helper of man; in marriage both become one flesh; and both sexes alike fell into sin and now participate in salvation. As regards their differences, man was created first, woman second; woman was made from man and for man, not the other way round; the image of God is in man directly, but in woman indirectly; and woman was the first to fall into sin, and received the sentence that her husband should rule over her. Insofar as the sexes are alike, there is unity and equality between them; but insofar as the sexes are different, the woman is subordinate to the man. This subordination, resulting not just from the Fall but from Creation itself, is not annulled by Christ's work of redemption; on the contrary, it is repeatedly emphasized in the New Testament, both in the context of marriage and in that of congregational worship. Nevertheless, redemption transforms the subordination, by transforming the attitude of the man and the woman towards each other, so that their relationship can be compared to that between Christ and the Church, or between God the Father and Christ.
On this creation-principle of female subordination, the Pauline epistles base both teaching about marriage, and also five regulations about congregational worship: that women must cover their heads, keep silent, not lead in prayer, not teach, and not exercise authority over men. With regard to the first two regulations, Paul refers to contemporary custom, and it may well be right to regard these two as wholly conditioned by custom. It was then customary for women to express their modest submissiveness towards the opposite sex by covering their heads and keeping silent, but (in the western world at least) it is so no longer; and breach of the two customs has now become so normal as not to be designed, or understood, as breach of the principle of subordination. The third and fourth regulations, against leading in prayer and teaching, are extensions of the regulation on keeping silent, but they extend it to the realm of leadership in the congregation, and so verge on the fifth regulation, against exercising authority over men. Nevertheless it is the fifth regulation alone which is so inseparable from the concept of female subordination that it is impossible to see how the principle could be observed if the regulation were ignored. With this in mind, we turn to the subject of the ministry.
The Authority of the Christian Ministry
Ministry in the apostolic Church was a manifold and varying phenomenon. It was as widespread in the Church as the operation of the Holy Spirit, and as diverse as his gifts. Several lists of charismatic ministries are found in the Pauline epistles (Rom.12.6-8; 1 Cor. 12.7-11, 28-30; Eph. 4.11f), and the lists are by no means identical, though they usually begin with ministries of the Word.
One of these charismatic ministries of the Word, apostleship, was also an office, to which specific individuals had been outwardly appointed by Christ. The Twelve had originally been appointed to this office by Christ during his earthly life, and a few others, notably Paul, could claim to be apostles because they had seen Christ, and been commissioned by him, after his resurrection. It is possible that the itinerant ministry of the evangelist was also an office, to which men were outwardly appointed in the Church, but there were two local ministries of which this was certainly true: those of elder (or bishop) and of deacon. 'Elder' [Gk. presbuteros, hence English 'presbyter', 'priest'] and 'bishop' appear to be two names for the same ministry in the New Testament (see especially Acts 20.17, 28; Titus 1.5-7); and in the references to elders (or bishops) and deacons, their unique status among the ministries of the local church comes out in various ways. In Acts 15, and elsewhere in Acts, the Jerusalem elders have a place second only to the apostles at the Jerusalem council and in the life of the Jerusalem church generally. In Acts 20, the elders alone are summoned from the church of Ephesus to receive Paul's final charge. In Philippians 1.1, the bishops (or elders) and deacons are alone singled out from the church of Philippi for special mention in the opening greeting. In James 5.14, it is the elders who are to be sent for to pray for the sick. If these references suggest not just two charismatic ministries but two offices, to which public appointment had been made, the suggestion is confirmed by Acts 14.23 and Titus 1.5, where Paul appoints, or provides for the appointments of, elders (and no other ministries) in each congregation; and by 1 Timothy 3.1-13 and Titus 1.6-9, where lists are given of the qualifications required in candidates for the ministry of elder bishop and deacon (and for no other ministry), obviously with a view to their appointment. The very name 'elder' implies office, since, unlike the names of all the other ministries, charismatic or institutional, 'elder' is not descriptive of function but simply means 'older' or 'senior man'. It may have been precisely to indicate the elder's function that his further title of 'bishop' [Gk. episkopos, overseer] was added.
The title 'elder' corresponds to the Hebrew word zãken, of similar meaning, and both the name and the office are generally assumed to have been borrowed from the Jewish synagogue.(11) There is consequently no reason to assume that eldership only developed in Christianity towards the end of the New Testament period.(l2) The connection of 'elder' with age reflects the fact that in the Old Testament, where elders first occur, age is thought of as bringing experience and consequently wisdom (1 Kings 12.6-15; Prov. 4.1; 5.1), thus qualifying elders for their duties as rulers and judges (Num. 11.16-30, etc.). Originally, one infers, elders were men of advancing years; that this still tended to be the case in New Testament times is indicated by 1 Peter 5.1, 5; Mishnah Aboth 5.21. Nevertheless, age was never reckoned to be as important as the wisdom which age brings, so not all older men officiated as elders; and in the intertestamental literature one finds that even the young can be treated as elders if they are wise (Susanna 45, 50).
For their duties as rulers and judges, elders needed a knowledge of God's Law, and this knowledge qualified them also to teach. Consequently it was the elders, along with the priests, who were entrusted with the written Law of Moses and charged to read it to the people (Deut. 31.9-13). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the duty of teaching the Law is laid especially upon the priests (Lev. 10.10f; Deut. 33.10; Mal. 2.6f, etc.), and in first-century Alexandria we fmd the priests as well as the elders still performing it, by expounding the Scriptures to the people in the synagogue on the sabbath (Philo, Hypothetica 7.13). In Palestine, however, the task of teaching seems by the first century to have passed over almost entirely to the elders, who are called by this name in Luke 7.3, in a Jerusalem synagogue-inscription from before A.D. 70, and in the rabbinical literature, but in the New Testament are usually called 'scribes' (Scripture-experts), 'teachers of the Law', 'lawyers', or 'rabbis'.
As a ruler and judge especially, but also as a teacher, the authority of the Jewish elder was considerable, and his title of 'elder' (senior man) implied this authority. The office was never held by women, because of their subordination to men. The Christian elder bore the same title, together with the additional title of 'bishop' (i.e. overseer), which further emphasized his authority; and he performed the same three functions of ruling, judging,(l3) and teaching. His ruling had a pastoral rather than a political or civil character, but was still conceived as ruling:
Let the elders who rule [proistemi] well be considered worthy of double honour (1 Tim. 5.17).
The elders therefore among you I exhort . . . Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight [episkopountes] . . . neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves exsamples to the flock (1 Pet. 5.1-3, RV).
Also in these passages, which probably refer to elders, though not by name:
But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labour among you and are over [proistemi'] you in the Lord and admonish you (1 Thess. 5.12).
Obey them that have the rule over [hegeomai, rule, lead] you, and submit to them: for they watch in behalf of your souls, as they that shall give account. . . Salute all them that have the rule over [hegeomai] you (Heb. 13.17, 24, RV).
In the light of such evidence, it is not surprising that the Christian eldership was never held by women, any more than the Jewish. Only in a branch of Montanism and in modern times has an attempt been made to alter this. In the New Testament we apparently find women deacons (see Rom. 16.1; 1 Tim. 3. 11), but never women elders or bishops, and the reason for the difference is not far to seek. Two times out of three in the New Testament the deacon appears alongside the elder-bishop, and the lists of qualifications (apart from the latter's teaching-gifts) are the same for both, so the offices are clearly related; but the deacon is mentioned much less frequently, is mentioned second not first, and has a humbler title [Gk. diakonos, servant]. Already, therefore, as later, his office is evidently an assistant one: he is an assistant to the elder-bishop, perhaps corresponding to the synagogue 'attendant' or hazzan (Luke 4.20); he is appointed if and when such assistance is needed; and he remains a deacon—it was not until the fourth century that the diaconate became a first step to the presbyterate (or eldership).(l4) Understandably enough, the subordinate position of the woman did not disqualify her for the subordinate office, but it did disqualify her for the principal one.(15)
Against the idea of ministerial authority, it is customary today to invoke the conception of ministry as service. It is pointed out that the usual New Testament words for 'ministry' (diakonia and its cognates) also mean 'service', and the teaching of our Lord is adduced, where he says:
You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10.42-5).
For the interpretation of these words, it is important to note that Christ invokes his own example. Did he renounce his greatness and authority by serving? Surely not. Rather, he showed the way that greatness and authority ought to be exercised: not by lording it (which the elders also are forbidden to do, as we saw in 1 Peter 5) but by serving. In the Gentile world, service evoked contempt, but among the followers of Jesus, because of his teaching and example, it was to evoke respect.(16) This comes out even more clearly in another saying of our Lord's, related to his washing of the disciples' feet (John 13.12-17). Here he states explicitly, 'You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.' He is not then renouncing his greatness and authority by performing the office of a servant towards his disciples, and they will not be renouncing their due measure of greatness or authority by following his example.
This essay has constantly insisted upon the concepts of authority and subordination, concepts which are in very low esteem at the present time, both in society at large and in the Church. Nothing indeed is more characteristic of our age in all the relationships of life, than the rejection of authority. Authority can of course be abused; it still remains true that we ought to obey God rather than man (Acts 4.19; 5.29). But without authority there can be no order, and the total rejection of authority is the rejection of God, from whom authority ultimately comes. It is not surprising therefore that part of this rejection of authority, in the ecclesiastical context, is rejection of the authority of Scripture as God's word. The Bible addresses its teaching to those who tremble at his word (Isa. 66.5), and promises his blessing to those whose hearts are tender and who humble themselves before him when they hear what he speaks (2 Kings 22.18-20), whether his message is congenial or not. Once one tries to take this attitude towards the Bible, one cannot fail to see that, according to biblical teaching, men and women can no more cease to be in a relationship of authority and subordination than they can cease to be creatures of God; and that presbyters and bishops can never cease to have authority in the congregation without ceasing to be the same ministry which evolved out of the Jewish-Christian ministry of presbyter-bishop, and becoming something completely different. Reform of the Christian ministry is undoubtedly needed today, but reform like that would amount to its abolition. This being so, the exclusion of the subordinate partner in the human race from the principal offices in the Christian ministry (those of bishop and presbyter) is as inevitable today as it was in the first century. It is in the perpetual diaconate (when this has been genuinely revived), in charismatic, that is, non-institutional ministries (which are now beginning to regain their rightful prominence in the Church), and in institutional ministries which are of purely ecclesiastical origin, that women will find their appropriate role and true fulfilment.
1. The foregoing analysis of the three chapters owes much to the commentaries on Genesis by Skinner (International Critical Commentary) and especially Driver (Westminster Commentary).
2. See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (E.T., SCM Press 1969), pp. 359-63. In the light of the contemporary background, it is impossible to accept the theory of W. J. Martin and J. B. Harley that Paul is referring not to the veil but simply to hair or hairstyle.
3. It is not possible to confine the sense of 'man' and 'woman' in 1 Corinthians 11.3 simply to 'husband' and 'wife', since there would be unmarried and widowed persons in the congregation as well as married. Moreover further on in the passage, where Paul says 'the man is by the woman' (v. 12), he is clearly referring not to husband and wife but to son and mother. Of course it would not really answer any problem to confine subordination to the relationship between husband and wife, since to modern secular thought it is just as offensive there as in wider society.
4. The applications of Paul's argument to the wearing of the veil is not entirely clear: it might be thought that, just as the woman should cover her head before the man, so the man should (like the Jewish priest) cover his head before the Lord. Perhaps Paul draws a distinction between visible and invisible relationships. Be this as it may, the application of his argument to the general principle of female modesty is perfectly clear.
5. It is unlikely that the variation of terminology in verse 7, where the words 'image and glory' are used of the man but only the word 'glory' of the woman, affects the meaning. The 'image' and 'glory' of God are closely related concepts for Paul (see 2 Cor. 3.18; 4.4, 6), and the one probably implies the other.
6. 'Authority on her Head: an Esamination of 1 Cor. xi.10', in New Testament Studies, vol. 10 (1963-64).
7. See Jeremias, op. cit., p. 360.
8. In the preceding examination of 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14, the commentaries mainly used have been those of Robertson and Plummer (ICC), Grosheide and Héring.
9. Outside the Pauline literature, the same teaching is found in 1 Peter 3.1-6.
10. In the reference to the beguiling of Eve by the serpent, some commentators on 1 Timothy (e.g. Parry and E. K. Simpson) see implied a further reason why women must not teach, namely, that women are more easily deceived than men. It is doubtful whether this implication is intended by the author.
11. A. E. Harvey's denial of this ('Elders', in The Journal of Theological Studies, N.S., vol. 25, 1974, pp. 318-32) is only possible because he rejects out of hand the rabbinical evidence (on which see Julius Newman, Semikhah, Manchester University Press 1950), and consequently ignores the many close parallels between Jewish and Christian elders which the rabbinical literature displays.
12. The fact that there seem to have been no elders in office at Corinth when 1 Corinthians was written should not be taken to mean that none had ever been appointed there, or that the Corinthian situation was general. Corinth was still in rebellion against its elders when 1 Clement was written at the end of the century.
13. As at the Jerusalem council, or rather court of appeal (Acts 15.2, 6, 22-9; 16.4), and also doubtless in cases of excommunication. How far elders personally administered the sacraments in the first century is an obscure question, but to supervise the administration of the sacraments was doubtless included in their task of ruling, just as exclusion from the sacraments was included in their task of judging.
14. See H. B. Swete (ed.), Essays on the Early History of the Church and the Ministry (Macmillan 1918), pp. 306f.
15. There are also inferential arguments which provide indirect evidence that women would not have been admitted to offices of authority over men in biblical times: the patriarchal structure of Israelite society, its male priesthood, the representation of God as Father and the Logos as Son, the incarnation of the Son as a male, his appointment of male apostles, and the statement that woman is the weaker sex (1 Peter 3.7). The principle of female subordination has, of course, consequences for wider society, not simply for the Church, but it is the Church's task to set society an example (not to follow society's own example).
16. See the commentaries on Mark by Swete and Gould (ICC), ad loc.