Pro-Women, Anti-Straw

As part of keeping up with this page (something I haven’t been too good at this week), I do quite a bit more reading of religious and spiritual themed articles and blog posts than I actually get around to linking to here.  Recently, I came across this article from Fr. Dwight Longenecker about why he left the Anglican Church to become a Catholic Priest when the Anglicans started ordaining women in 1995.  Why is this relevant 20 years later?  I think Fr. Longenecker was prompted by some repeated calls from Catholic women for that church to start ordaining women too, but for me personally, I’m just tired of seeing these kinds of arguments continue to crop up.  Our own Baptist tradition doesn’t exactly act together on anything (old joke: I don’t believe in organized religion, I’m a Baptist), so we have something of a mixed record on female ministers.  Sure, there are probable more female Baptist pastors than there ever have been, but for every 3 steps forward there are 2 steps back.  But mostly, I’m posting this because Fr. Longenecker’s article just got under my skin and I wanted to respond.

His article attempts to present a moderate position–he thinks there are some very good reasons for accepting women as priests, but ultimately the reasons for rejecting them were better to his mind.  It’s that second list, found on page two that I want to address (my responses below will make more sense if you’ve read his list).  I’m going to tackle each of his points, but before I get started, I should say that while I admire many Anglicans and Catholics and think that they do some things much better than we do as Baptists, because I don’t come from those hierarchical traditions the arguments of church authority just don’t mean as much me.  So maybe it’s a little unfair to attack them without feeling their full weight in the first place.  But there are plenty of Baptists who would use similar arguments to keep women out of the pulpit, so…onward.

  1. The Lord only chose men as his apostles – Did he?  Who gets to say who among his followers counted as an “apostle” anyway?  Sure the 12 were all men, but Paul proves that the 12 were not the only apostles.  Mary Magdalene is mentioned more often than several of the 12 in the gospels.  Can we honestly say from scripture that she did not know Jesus as well, or take his teachings as much to heart?  And it was Mary (possibly with other women) who first recognized the risen Jesus.  If we are looking for special marks of divine approval, shouldn’t that count?  In short, it seems a pretty selective reading to say that Jesus himself only chose men as his special followers.  
  2. There is a God-given complementarity in the traditional imagery of male and female – First off, why does a Priest only get to be the Father figure?  Does that mean that by this argument any traditionally feminine virtues a male Pastor or Priest shows are outside his role?  But of course not, in these kinds of arguments the traditional “father” role can be stretched as much as necessary to accommodate gentle, loving encouragement, or other “softer” virtues.  A good father listens as well as instructs, right?  But the “mother” role conveniently never seems to include telling hard truths and raising a prophetic voice, no matter how many mothers do this in their actual roles as mothers.  This argument appeals to an image of both men and women that have never really fit anyone.  But even if we were to take this ideal seriously, and suppose that a male Pastor or Priest is the spiritual father, then why do we not have a position representing the spiritual mother?  Mary serves as mother, but a living priest serves as father, which hardly seems fair.  Clearly, this is not a serious argument, so it should not be taken seriously.  Next.
  3. This innovation is an obstacle to unity – I guess as a Baptist, I just don’t see the logic of this one at all.  We shouldn’t do this because it might offend the neighbors that we already separated from centuries ago? I’m not saying we shouldn’t dream of a more perfect church that doesn’t spend half its time fighting itself, but someone else’s disagreement shouldn’t stop you from doing what’s right.  It’s not like Anglicans and Catholics haven’t disagreed before…I’m pretty sure that’s why there are Anglicans at all.  
  4. The Bible and the Early Church have women ministers, but not women priests – Maybe this is a fair argument from a Catholic or Anglican point of view, but it should be a point in favor of female pastors in Protestant churches, especially Baptists that espouse the idea of the “priesthood of believers.”  Besides that, this relies on an argument that comes up all the time and drives me nuts.  There is this concept from both without and within Christianity (and other religions of a certain age) that it has been always the same.  Baptists might instead say it’s the Bible that never changes, but the sentiment is the same, and it simply (and obviously) isn’t true. Yet that idea persists in popular imagination.  Christianity changes all the time as people attempt to apply the teachings of Jesus to their current lives and circumstances.  That’s what all those Councils and Synods that plague undergraduates taking Western Civ are all about.  The church, sluggish as it might seems, still does change.  Pretty dramatically sometimes.  Liberals are also quick to use early-church-precedents when they serve our purposes, and that’s not wrong.  Tradition is important; precedent is important.  But it’s not enough.  And clearly, neither side would ever have to look back and reevaluate if the church was still the same as it ever was.  “It’s always been this way”  has to be followed with something like, “and should remain so (or change) given current circumstances because…” or you might as well just be saying, “because, that’s why.”  And “just because,” doesn’t stand up against the general Biblical call for equality and justice.
  5. Instead of Women’s Ordination we need a renewal of women’s religious orders – This is one thing that I sometimes wish Baptists had more of.  We (meaning me, at least, I don’t mean to speak for you) could certainly use more training in spiritual discipline and an atmosphere that promoted contemplation.  I have nothing against nuns, and I’m all for “feisty” and “faithful” religious sisters.  But it is pretty condescending to suggest that this is the “answer to the feminist problem.”  Nuns, at least in the system that our good Father Longenecker is imagining, might get to offer some advice occasionally and live out their faith (no small thing, certainly), but they have no real authority and that’s the point.  Women called to be nuns should be nuns, but women called to be leaders in their church should not be nuns.  They should lead.
  6. The Church should not simply bend according to the winds of cultural change – That’s true.  But it should bend to the will of God, to the hurricane-force whisper of the Holy Spirit.  The message of the Gospel is one of expanding love and inclusivity.  Equality is not a fad that has shown up in the last few years and might disappear.  It’s what we’ve (some of us, anyway) have been trying to work for since the beginning.  The church often gets sidetracked from this mission, but it’s certainly not new.  I think, Father, you might have confused the bending winds of cultural change with arc of the moral universe, bending toward justice.

So…this got a little longer than planned, and I realize that most likely the people that would read this already agree with me.  But in recent months, I have been struck by how often it seems that we as a culture and as a religion are fighting the same fights again and again.  The arguments against full inclusion in religious life for women are presented as if made of brick, but they blow away like so much straw.  Somehow though, the same arguments just get picked up a few years later and repackaged to be used again.  They might be straw, but they are laced with a hateful poison that does real damage.  I am tired of running into it. 

Here’s the best argument I’ve got for ordaining women as pastors, deacons, ministers, and even priests.  Forget fairness: Some of them are just really, really good at it.  And we need more people who want to use their god given gifts to make the world a better place.  To deny anyone that privilege and burden strikes me as very stupid, whatever your reasons.

– Ben

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