I grew up as a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a church body which rejects the ordination of women to the role of pastor. The publishing branch of that denomination, Concordia Publishing House, put out a book entitled Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective edited by Matthew C. Harrison (who is the current President of the LCMS) and John T. Pless. I have decided to take the book on, chapter-by-chapter, for two reasons. 1) I am frequently asked why I support women pastors by friends, family, and people online who do not share my position, and I hope to show that the best arguments my former denomination can bring forward against women pastors fail. 2) I believe the position of the LCMS and other groups like it is deeply mistaken on this, and so it warrants interaction to show that they are wrong. I will, as I said, be tackling this book chapter-by-chapter, sometimes dividing chapters into multiple posts. Finally, I should note I am reviewing the first edition published in 2008. I have been informed that at least some changes were made shortly thereafter, including in particular the section on the Trinity which is, in the edition I own, disturbingly mistaken. I will continue with the edition I have at hand because, frankly, I don’t have a lot of money to use to get another edition. Yes, I’m aware the picture I used is for the third edition.
“The Ordination of Women: A Twentieth Century Gnostic Heresy?” by Louis A. Brighton
First, do an exercise for me. Search “gnostic heresy” on your preferred search engine. Now, look at Gnosticism on Wikipedia. Confused yet? I am–because Gnosticism is a radically diverse set of beliefs that has effectively had that label slapped on it. And, in modern times, virtually any position anyone wants to condemn theologically has been referred to as Gnosticism. The fluidity of the label is notorious, leading some thinkers to effectively give up the term, or at least argue it is much more diverse than we may think. But here, Brighton makes an effort to rebrand egalitarians–those who support the ordination of women–as some kind of modern Gnostic heresy. Let’s dive in.
Brighton begins the chapter with a series of questions, ultimately concluding with questions that effectively present Brighton’s thesis: “How did the role of women in Gnosticism relate to Gnostic theology, specifically the article of God? Secondly, this paper notes the oopposition of the early church to both the Gnostic practice or ordaining women and the Gnostic doctrine of God” (91). Related to this claim is his assertion that “It is quite clear that the early church saw an important and intimate connection between the practice of women serving as priests… and the doctrine and teaching about God” (ibid).
Brighton then cites a few church fathers speaking poorly about women being teachers in the church. For example, he quotes Tertullian as saying it is audacious to allow women “even to baptize!” (92). It is odd that Brighton would favorably quote this, because this goes against the Lutheran Confessions. The Augsburg Confession in Article VIII, states “Both the sacraments and the Word are efficacious because of the ordinance and command of Christ, even when offered by evil people.” In The Large Catechism, Fifth Part, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” Martin Luther states “Our conclusion is: Even though a scoundrel receives or administers the sacrament, it is the true sacrament… just as truly as when one uses it most worthily. For it is not founded on human holiness but on the Word of God.” (See more here on a Sacramental/Lutheran view of women in church leadership) Moreover, at various levels of being taught by people, including pastors, in the LCMS, I have been told that women may baptize, at least in the case of an emergency. But Brighton makes no reference to the Confessions, nor to the possibility that Tertullian may have gone too far. Instead, he presses on in his point.
Next, Brighton notes various ways women interacted in society in the Graeco-Roman world. Ultimately, he accurately states that “It is difficult… to be dogmatic… and certainly it is not possible to make a blanket statement about what was or was not socially acceptable” (93). After giving a very brief survey of some Gnostic sources, Brighton moves on to the role of women in Gnosticism. “In some of the Gnostic texts women appear equal to men in being authorities for the establishment of doctrine” (95). What is odd here is that though Brighton notes positive examples of women in the Gnostic texts, he ignores or excludes those which are negative. This is, perhaps, because he’s seeking to support his conclusion that “The role of women in Gnosticism is in striking contrast to the role that women held in Orthodox Christianity” (96). This statement, to put it bluntly, is historically vacuous. Brighton doesn’t demonstrate this whatsoever. Simply citing a few positive statements in a select few Gnostic writings does nothing to demonstrate the following essential points for Brighton to support his thesis: 1) that “orthodox Christianity” was a single unit with unified teaching in this time before Nicaea (and after, for that matter); 2) that Gnostics universally held to a different position on women than “orthodox Christians” universally did; 3) that Gnosticism spoke with one voice; 4) that orthodoxy spoke with one voice on women; 5) that Christians treated women differently in every case; 6) that no “orthodox” Christians had women as leaders (something which is demonstrably false–see concluding paragraph below). Any one of these points is deleterious to Brighton’s point, but together they show that he hasn’t even begun to make his case for such a strong conclusion.
Brighton states that in Gnosticism, God is portrayed as feminine. He argues that this is in “marked contrast to both the canonical scriptures and the orthodox church’s belief, in which the feminine element is absent in both thought and symbolism of God” (97). This is a surprising claim, given that very clear statements in the Bible itself are made in which feminine symbolism is used of God. For example, though Brighton earlier decries Gnosticism for seeing God as Wisdom and therefore feminine, Wisdom in Proverbs 1 and 8 has long been seen in many strands of orthodoxy to be a reference to God or even Christ, and is a decidedly feminine portrayal. Both men and women are created in the “image” of God in Genesis–which would suggest that both masculine and feminine aspects are present in the Godhead. In the Bible, God is seen as giving birth (Deuteronomy 32:18, which unites masculine and feminine imagery); as a comforting mother (Isaiah 66:13); as a mother bear (Hosea 13:8); as like a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14); as a mother hen (Matthew 23:37); and more. If even one of these is a feminine symbol of God, Brighton is wrong, but it is clear that every single one of these is a feminine symbol of God and in church history there are plenty of “orthodox” Christians who saw feminine imagery of God as well, especially surrounding the Wisdom passages in Proverbs. Brighton is just wrong here, and it undermines essentially his entire argument in this section, which is based on a denial of any such imagery.
What is remarkable is that in the very next section, Brighton actually lists several of these examples, but doesn’t acknowledge in any way that this would present a problem for his thesis that it is “absent”! The rest of this section is spent on Brighton noting various other sources certain Gnostic groups used to see feminine imagery, but it hardly undermines anything that is actually present in the Bible! Brighton then attacks one strand of Gnostic thought that equivocates on good and evil and sees God as the source of evil, spending a few paragraphs attacking this notion. But nowhere does he actually link this to any modern feminist theology, nor does he link it to egalitarianism in any way.
In another surprising turn, Brighton’s conclusion follows this, and he re-asserts that the theology of God of Gnosticism was rejected, but then goes on to say that “this paper concludes that orthodox Christianity of the early church, with its theology of the Triune God, could not but reject the practice of the ordination of women into the public ministry” (105). What? Where does Brighton even make this connection in any real sense? He doesn’t actually argue that the early church saw this connection, nor did he demonstrate that there was a connection! Indeed, he even lists Bible verses that disprove one of his central claims! Yet here, he turns around and argues that somehow modern egalitarians are Gnostics? There is no connection made anywhere between the two schools of thought, other than the incidental fact that each ordains women (and Brighton even fails to adequately define Gnosticism or show that ordination of women was a universal Gnostic practice, which it almost certainly was not). There is no evidence here mustered against the ordination of women; it’s just a survey of Gnostic texts followed by Brighton’s rejection thereof.
A significant issue with Brighton’s thesis is that it doesn’t actually align with all of Gnosticism. In attempting to link modern-ish egalitarianism to Gnosticism, Brighton failed to take into account the whole breadth of Gnostic thought and factions. Instead, he simply asserts without argument that the two are equivalent. But Brighton doesn’t deal with those Gnostic texts or beliefs that run contrary to his thesis. For example, in the Gospel of Thomas, one of the very texts Brighton cites to push his point, one finds saying 114:
Simon Peter says to them: “Let Mary go out from our midst, for women are not worthy of life!” Jesus says: “See, I will draw her so as to make her male so that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who has become male will enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
Does this saying appear to align with Brighton’s theory that Gnostics favored women and are somehow equivalent to modern day egalitarians? Clearly not. But Brighton should have been aware of this and many, many other sayings and beliefs detrimental to women in Gnostic thought.
Perhaps the most significant problem with Brighton’s position is that it discounts entirely those examples in the early church that run contrary to his point. For one, there are numerous examples in the New Testament itself of women in roles of leadership. Junia is an apostle; Phoebe and Priscilla are various levels of church leaders, women were clearly named as prophets numerous times, Lydia and Nympha are stated as having churches in their houses, and the fulfillment of Joel 2:28, in which there doesn’t appear to be a distinction whatsoever between men and women prophesying, is affirmed in Acts 2. For more on some of these, see here. But Brighton doesn’t account for any of these examples, nor does he deal with the documentary evidence in the early church of many other church leaders. Yet these are direct refutations of his thesis. Either he doesn’t know about these counter-examples, or he intentionally does not mention them. Either way, it is a significant oversight, and one that refutes him. Moreover, as we have seen several times above, simply charging others with Gnosticism is hardly a fruitful way to engage with other positions. This chapter is most accurately described as a lengthy move to poison the well against egalitarians.
Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)
Interpretations and Applications of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35– Those wondering about egalitarian interpretations of this passage can check out this post for brief looks at some of the major interpretations of the passage from an Egalitarian viewpoint.
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If women are excluded from the ministry solely due to their nature as women, then women are ontologically inferior.
The argument entails:
If complementarianism (the position that women should not be in the ministry) is true, then women are ontologically inferior to men.
Some may note that this doesn’t necessarily imply that complementarianism is false, but astute readers will note that there is one further implication, namely:
If complementarianism holds that women are ontologically equal to men, but the position entails that women are inferior to men, then complementarianism holds contradictory propositions to be true.
And this would entail that complementarianism is false.
The argument is directly from Rebecca Groothuis, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role,” 317 (full citation below). She writes,
P1: If the permanent, comprehensive, and ontologically grounded subordination of women is justified, then women are inferior persons.
P2: Women are not inferior persons.
Conclusion: Therefore, women’s subordination is not justified.
Premise one is contentious. Complementarians often anticipate such arguments and counter by asserting that women are “equal in being, unequal in role.” Groothuis has cogently argued that this is merely a semantics game. First, she notes that “functional differences often are compatible with personal equality…” (“Equal in Being…” 315). The problem for those who wish to exclude women from the ministry is that the role of women is not simply functional. Rather, it “differs from functional subordination in its scope, duration, and criterion” (316). Women’s subordination is permanent, because women are subordinate throughout their life, and it applies to all women at all times (Ibid). The subordination is comprehensive in scope because everything a woman does must be done in submission to males (if one disputes this they need only browse complementarian literature: see John Piper, cited below, 50ff). Finally, the criterion for women being subordinate is not analogous to functional subordination (wherein the subordinate member enters the functional relationship either willingly or through need) because the subordination is based merely on the woman’s unalterable female being (Groothuis, 317).
P2 is almost universally acknowledged as true. Unless the complementarian is willing to swallow the pill and affirm that women are inferior persons, they must grant P2.
The conclusion follows from P1 and P2. Therefore, it seems that women should not be made subordinate to men. There are, of course, many objections to this argument. We shall turn to these below.
Objection 1: The argument above is all well and good, but it is a philosophical argument. We all know that it is Sola Scriptura, and your argument assumes that philosophy can trump the Bible, which it doesn’t.
There are a number of clarifications required to respond to this objection. First, those who assert Sola Scriptura are themselves making a philosophical claim: that Scripture alone is the basis for our faith. Second, if one wishes to jettison philosophy because they hold a position which is philosophically untenable, then they cannot coherently assert “My position is true.” Why? Because when one throws philosophy out the window, one throws logic out the window. Thus, the principle of non-contradiction would also be false. If that is true, then when one says “My position is true” they could be both right and wrong, and therefore their position could also be false. This is absurd, and it undermines every single truth claim. Those who reject philosophy must also reject truth.
Finally, even those who argue that philosophy and logic must have a “ministerial role” implicitly accept that their claims are governed by logic. I can think of at least two extremely plausible reasons for this to be true. First, those who want philosophy to occupy a “ministerial” place argue that because they have come to the logical conclusion that the Bible must govern reality. Here’s the problem: they also seek to reconcile contradictions in the Bible and draw out its claims–and this is a philosophical endeavor. Thus, those who argue in this fashion are, themselves, doing philosophy and logic. Second, those who argue that philosophy must be “ministerial” often do so because a position they hold is logically untenable. But if philosophy (and, by implication, logic) must function underneath Biblical truth, why reject logic to begin with? If philosophy and logic don’t apply to Biblical teaching, then there’s no reason to reject it, because things can be true and false! Yet those who argue this way realize that their claims are philosophical (without using that word), and so reject the counterarguments by trying to make the logical move of throwing philosophy out the window. It’s incoherent.
Objection 2: P1 is false because ontologically grounded subordination does not imply inferiority.
Clearly, this objection is more thought out than objection 1. Those who object in this way accept that logic governs these disputes, and instead set on rejecting a premise of the argument so that the conclusion will not follow.
I cannot answer this objection without a bit of philosophical development, so my readers will have to forgive me.
Adam Omelianchuk addresses this objection head on in his article “Ontologically Grounded Subordination” (full citation below). He writes that “the central metaphysical concern is over whether subordination is essential to the personal identity of woman” (169). He goes on to introduce the notion of “proper function” (well known in philosophy due to Alvin Plantinga’s series on “Warrant”). Proper function “means something is functioning properly if it is doing what it is supposed to do” (170). Now, on complementarianism, women are designed in such a way as to be subordinate to men, while men are designed to be the leader. Thus, the woman’s proper function is to be subordinate by nature, while the man’s function is to be leader by nature. When a woman tries to become a minister, she is violating her proper function. She is, by nature, only functioning properly when subordinate. Now, we’ve already addressed the notion of unequal roles, but here we are trying to establish that a woman is, in fact, ontologically inferior if complementarianism is true. Omelianchuk writes:
[I]t is not plausible to believe that men and women are ontologically equal, because manhood and womanhood are not ontologically equal. Obviously, manhood and womanhood are “different,” so they are not equal in the sense that they are not identical. But if we differentiate manhood and womanhood by hierarchical features essential to manhood and womanhood themselves, and if we maintain that God designed men and women to fulfill these functions of manhood and womanhood, then we have a prima facie reason to believe that women are essentially inferior to men. Hence, complementarianism fails. (174).
In other words, the very nature of manhood and womanhood is such that man is at a greater position on the hierarchy of authority than woman. They are not equal. Again, as Omelianchuk writes, “[Women] simply are not equal in being, and their ‘role’ obtains just because their being is fit for subordination” (176-177).
Finally, those who continue to object may assert that I have not yet made explicit how women are inferior to men. It seems to me to have already been made fairly explicit–men, by nature, are higher in authority than women–but some persist in this objection. Perhaps a thought experiment may help illustrate my point. Complementarians hold that women should also be subordinate in the home to their husbands. Consider Jackie and Jim. Jim gets a job offer in Alaska which pays about the same as Jackie’s current job, but is something he would enjoy (as opposed to the job he currently has, which he hates and pays much less). Jackie loves her current job, but would have to work at a job she didn’t like were they to move to Alaska. They argue about whether or not to move to Alaska. Finally, they get to the point where they are at an impasse, and neither is willing to budge. Jim, on complementarianism, is the leader of the home, and Jackie is subordinate. So, when push finally comes to shove, Jim decides they will move, and Jackie, on complementarianism, should submit with all due respect and go to Alaska without further debate. Jim has asserted his role as the leader of the home, and therefore they must move.
It seems clear to me that this story may not make explicit how subordination entails inferiority, but it does seem to show that the woman has a clearly inferior position. If an argument comes to the point where neither side will go one way or the other, the man always gets his way. Now I realize that complementarians often argue that men should be loving leaders, should not use their leadership role to trump their wife all the time, etc., but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty details, Jim in the above story was acting in his role as the leader in the home. His decision is the one which must be followed. Perhaps Jim later grants Jackie’s requests to visit friends and family “back home” and does all sorts of other things for her to make her comfortable in Alaska, but that doesn’t change the fact that her position is inferior to his–at least in the sense that whenever a decision is made about which they are split, his choice wins out.
[Thanks to one reader who was kind enough to point out I hadn’t properly drawn my points together, I have added this conclusion a few hours after this post originally went up.]
The argument I have written above shows that on complementarianism, women are ontologically inferior. Why should that entail that complementarianism is false, as noted in the introduction? Well, there are few (if any) who actually assert that women are inferior. In fact, the Biblical teaching on this topic is extremely clear. God, throughout His Word, affirms the equality of man and woman. Galatians 3:28 is one oft-cited example, but one can also look at Genesis 1:26-28, wherein male and female are created equally in God’s image. Groothuis addresses the notion of Biblical equality more in her chapter, so I won’t expand much more.
We therefore have issued a major challenge to complementarians: Women, according to Scripture (and essentially universal affirmation of all involved), are equal to men in being. Yet complementarianism entails that women are inequal in being–they are, in fact, inferior. If that’s true, then complementarianism affirms contradictory truths: women are equal and inequal, equal and inferior. Thus, complementarianism is false.
Adam Omelianchuk, “Ontologically Grounded Subordination,” Philosophia Christi 13-1, 2011, p. 169-180.
John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Comlementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 31-59 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).
Rebecca Groothuis, “‘Equal in Being, Unequal in Role’: Exploring the Logic of Woman’s Subordination” in Discovering Biblical Equality ed. Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Groothuis, 301-333 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2005).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.