The most interesting responses came, predictably enough, from Tom Wright on the egalitarian side, and from Doug Wilson on the complementarian side. Perhaps I’m driven to that conclusion by the fact that they are two of the best writers out there, and I always enjoy reading them whatever they’re saying. It might also be because they form such a delightful contrast: the Anglican bishop and the Idaho pastor, the leftish establishment serious scholar who thinks right-wing postmill American tea-partiers are the problem, and the right-wing postmill American tea-partier who thinks leftish establishment serious scholar types are the problem. (If they were first century Jews, then Wright would be a Pharisee, urging passion mixed with scholarship and a regard for Jewish history and tradition, and Wilson a zealot, insisting that these fluffy compromisers who had taken over the vineyard were in need of some serious confrontation.) But personality aside, I think their articles really did highlight the key issues in the debate.
Wright’s article appeared in The Times and in Fulcrum, and began by responding fairly directly to the criticisms levelled at the whole process:
“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?
... 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.
Brilliant. George Weigel wrote recently that, when the Catholic church is said to be two hundred years behind, he responds, “two hundred years behind what?” Cameron’s comments, and the many like them, assume that the “programme” to be got with, and the thing with which Christians must not be “out of touch” with, is contemporary British preferences - not historical British preferences (lest we have to study history), nor even universal contemporary preferences (for that would include those pesky Africans, Muslims and so on), and certainly not the scriptures. Wright shows, quite rightly, that such comments start off from the wrong place, and as a result tend to stay there. The basis for Christian decisions about anything is the authority of God, revealed through Scripture. Yes and Amen, and serious plaudits to Wright for being courageous enough to say so in the paper of record.
But when he starts to make the egalitarian case from the Bible, things become a bit more problematic. The chief problem is Wright’s rather eccentric take on 1 Timothy 2:12, in which (as we’ve seen here before) he changes the meaning of epitrepō ou from “I do not permit” to “I’m not saying that”, says that “the key words” are not used elsewhere when only one of them isn’t, and gives highly contentious translations of authenteo (“try to dictate to”) and hesuchia (“left undisturbed”). His explanation of this rendering in his commentary is interesting:
I fully acknowledge that the very different reading I’m going to suggest may sound to begin with as though I’m simply trying to make things easier, to tailor this bit of Paul to fit our culture. But there is good, solid scholarship behind what I’m going to say, and I genuinely believe it may be the right interpretation.
To which Doug Wilson responds, inimitably:
Well, yes. That is exactly what it sounds like. And did you notice that it does make things easier, doesn’t it? Paul does fit into the current climate a little better than before, doesn’t he? What a relief! Fortunately, there is good, solid scholarship (all rise!), six yards of it and all wool, to cover our butts here. You know what these gender equality conferences need? Some horse laughs from somewhere in the ventilation ducts.
But the problem with translation ninja moves is that more than one can play. Once we have kicked over our exegetical traces, and we are no longer trammeled by those doggone original words, then that misogynist Zeke, who lives up the road a piece, might think himself up to this kind of translation his very own self.
“I do not permit a woman to drive stick shift unless a man is present to yell at her; rather, she should stay at home and make us some biscuits. The kind we like, with fresh butter” (1 Tim. 2:12, Zeke).
And let us enquire, in a spirit of frank and earnest investigation, whether Zeke has done anything in principle that Wright didn’t do - with the possible exception that Wright knew what he was doing. And Zeke did add a few more words than Wright, but in his defense, the priestesses of the Temple of Diana in Ephesus, where Timothy was at the time, used to eat fresh butter.
What, then, of Wright’s positive case for women bishops? Well, in this article, it comprises Mary Magdalene, Junia and Phoebe. Mary Magdalene, despite the number of times Tom Wright refers to her as an apostle, is simply not regarded as one in any of the New Testament accounts, often being omitted when you would expect her to be included if she was (Acts 1 and 1 Corinthians 15 are the most obvious examples). If being an early witness of the resurrection qualifies one to carry governmental authority in the church, then the bribed guards would be the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury - apparently, being an eyewitness was a necessary condition of apostleship in those first weeks of the church, but not a sufficient one. Phoebe was not an apostle, nor an elder, let alone a bishop, but a deacon, as Romans 16:1-2 makes clear; she probably delivered the letter, and may well have read it to the church, but neither is certain, and certainly neither constitutes any sort of argument for women bishops. And then there is Junia, who has had more argumentative weight put on her slender shoulders in the last few years than almost any woman before her. She, along with Andronicus (who may have been her husband), was probably outstanding among the apostles, and she was probably a woman. But the meaning and implications of the word apostolos here, in light of the sense of “messenger” it carries elsewhere in Paul (2 Cor 8:23; Php 2:25-26), are not at all clear, despite the enthusiastic claims in some quarters that she was a foundational apostle (which she almost certainly wasn’t), and that she therefore justifies retranslating the Pastoral Epistles to make it look like women should be elders and bishops and Paul was an ardent feminist (which she certainly doesn’t). Again, Wilson remarks,
An apostle is a “sent one,” and the verb means “to send.” Jesus was an apostle of God (Heb. 3:1), the twelve were apostles of Christ (Luke 6:13), and Paul and Barnabas were apostles of the church at Antioch (Acts 13:2-4). How much authority is involved is a pure function of the sending agency, and what the sent one is commissioned to do. Of course Junia was a sent one. But whose? To what purpose? The mere use of the word gives us no basis for promoting someone who was sent for coffee to the ranks of the Twelve.
Now, I don’t think Junia was sent for coffee, and neither does Doug Wilson. The fact is, we don’t know what she was sent for, nor by whom (not to mention the significant doubts about whether episemos en tois apostolois actually means “outstanding among”, as opposed to “notable to”). If the case for women bishops is to be made from Scripture, in the face of 1 Timothy 2, 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and so on (let alone the roles of husbands and wives in Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 3), it will take more than these three women, as wonderful and exemplary as they are.
None of this undercuts Wright’s excellent opening argument. The church should not take its marching orders from the contemporary zeitgeist, or David Cameron, or the outraged twitterati, but from King Jesus, who has spoken. The fact that Wilson (and I) disagree with Wright about what God has said does not mean we are on different teams; we are all insisting on the authority of divine revelation, rather than human preferences, as the standard to which we appeal when we make decisions. One day, Doug Wilson, Tom Wright, Justin Welby, Paul, Phoebe and Junia will be sitting at the same table, sharing war stories and comparing notes. And when that happens, if you look carefully, there’ll be a furtive pastor from Eastbourne loitering, and eavesdropping, in the background.