Image of Paul & Thecla at the Grotto of St. Paul at Ephesus (c. 6th Century). Thecla's eyes and upraised hand have been vandalized
The Southern Baptist Convention has been in the news quite a bit recently. Traditionally Arminian, there has been a struggle going on the last few years over a growing movement in the SBC towards 5-Point Calvinism, driven largely by younger, more conservative members within the ranks. And early this month former President Jimmy Carter announced that he was leaving the SBC because its church leaders, discounting his advice, had prohibited women from being ordained and insisted that women be "subservient to their husbands."
Myself, I've always been rather resistant to change for the sake of change itself. In a lot of ways, I'm still one of those old-fashioned Boston Irish types with a suspicion of novelty. After all, I still live in the same house I grew up in. How do I feel about women's ordination? Within the Catholic Church, I think it will happen someday, but not anytime soon. I'm old enough and traditional-minded enough to know that I'd be somewhat unsettled by the appearance of women priests (sorry ladies!), but I also know that my own comfort level is not what's important and what's at stake here. I understand the pain and the outrage many women feel about this, especially those who feel called to ministry. For them, it is a matter of basic justice and fairness and would be a sign of the approaching end of oppressive patriarchy and male supremacy. I can see that, but I also see the crisis in Catholic ministry and the priesthood to be much deeper. I'd rather see the issue of mandatory celibacy for diocesan clergy dealt with first. I understand the issue around basic fairness, but beyond that I think our problems are deeper and I don't necessarily see women's ordination as a solution to those problems. We are still trying to absorb the fractious changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council nearly 50 years after the fact. The Catholic Church moves very, very slowly on things. It's just the nature of what it is... It looks at the way things develop outside of its own walls for a long time before jumping in to embrace them. For a lot of people, that glacial pace will always be too slow.
I've had women as bosses in the workplace for decades. It's not a matter of female ability or authority that I find threatening or questionable by any means. People are people. Just as some men make great priests and some make lousy priests, some women would make great priests and some women would make lousy priests too. I think our vocation crisis has deeper problems than the ordination of women alone would address, and the ordination of women would present new challenges on top of those. There's no reason to think that Catholic women would flock to the priesthood either. In fact, the mass disappearance of the sisters has probably more to do with the collapse of Catholic culture in this country and elsewhere than the disappearance of priests.
There can be elements of disengenuousness in the debate too. I've run into people who are highly critical of the Catholic Church for not ordaining women as priests who don't believe that there should be any "priests" to begin with. They consider the whole concept of a priesthood to be unbiblical. On occasion, I've also posed a question to cultural Catholics who are upset about this, asking "If the Catholic Church ordained women as priests, would you start going to Mass every week?" The answer is usually no, so I don't think women's ordination in and of itself is going to be a panacea for the crisis we're in.
In his parting shot, in an article titled The Words of God Do Not Justify Cruelty to Women, Carter made a laudable and well-intentioned plea for women's equality, pointing out how many religious traditions and cultures had not only shut women out from ministry, but had oppressed them with slavery, lack of education, violence, genital mutilation, forced prostitution, arranged marriages, gender inequality in the workplace, unequal pay, and so forth.
Jimmy Carter, still the Know-it-All-in-Chief
As always, Carter is well-intentioned but also manages to mess things up a bit and get things slightly wrong in his hubris. Carter is another one of these guys who can't be told anything, and always has to be the smartest guy in the room. Some excerpts:
I have been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world.I need to stop right there. First of all, I find it pertubing that Jimmy Carter, speaking on behalf of not just himself but this self-appointed group of elders (which includes him and other aging luminaries from yesteryear such as Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, and Desmond Tutu), would nakedly admit that he can speak his mind freely now because he "no longer needs to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy." So much for the non-political outsider and man of the people, the humble peanut farmer from Georgia...
So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. This was in conflict with my belief - confirmed in the holy scriptures - that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. It is widespread. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths.
Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries. The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses...
I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive area to challenge.
But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy - and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.
The Elders have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights. We have recently published a statement that declares: "The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable."
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share.
Although not having training in religion or theology, I understand that the carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place - and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence - than eternal truths. Similar Biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
At the same time, I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn't until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted holy scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy....
The truth is that male religious leaders have had - and still have - an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.
I can now see why he said this. Here's a man who has trouble with the leadership of his own SBC over their interpretation of the bible, feels compelled to leave it, and what does he do? He falls back on a bit of hoary old apologetics which the current leadership of the SBC would readily agree with - "It wasn't until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted holy scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy."
It's that tired old argument that "the church was corrupted when Constantine converted and it became the religion of the Roman Empire..." In other words, in his attack on the Patristics era, he blames the Catholic Church for having "twisted and distorted the holy scriptures."
Jimmy Carter was the first person I ever voted for for president. I wish I'd known back then how he felt. Now I know how his supporters in the Jewish community felt when he wrote a book a few years ago accusing Israel of practicing "apartheid." I can now see why he worried about winning votes and avoiding controversy.
One thing I've noticed recently, to my sadness and disappointment, particularly with this train wreck going on within the Anglican Communion, is that liberal Protestants are as fully capable of being "anti-Romanist" and "anti-papist" as the most rock-ribbed conservative evangelicals. These liberals are also just as trapped within a certain view of biblical inerrancy and the need for total and complete biblical concordance as those conservatives are.
I once discussed this somewhat in the post How Elastic are the Scriptures. Just as liberals try to redefine the story of Sodom in Genesis 19 as being about a "lack of hospitality" rather than homosexuality, in a manner that is entirely strained and unconvincing (no matter how well-intentioned), Carter attempts to do the same with the treatment of women in the bible. I'm sorry, but the bible is what it is - a book written over a lengthy swath of time thousands of years ago. You can only stretch it so far without the thing completely losing integrity.
As far as a prohibition on women speaking up in church is concerned, my dear Mr President, if you don't like what you see, the fault lies not with "fourth century leaders twisting and distorting the holy scriptures," but within the "holy scriptures" themselves.
Carter claims that his belief in gender equality was confirmed in the scriptures - that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Yes, that's certainly true enough. He also said that the SBC leadership used carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men, verses that owe more to time and place - and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence. That may be true as well, but he also admits that he's not trained in religion and theology, and that's where he may be running into trouble. The fact of the matter is, some of the New Testament teaches gender egalitarianism and some of it does not. It isn't a matter of Church Fathers coming along later and twisting the scriptures, or of SBC leaders cherry-picking verses out of context or to the exclusion of others. The New Testament itself is mixed on these matters.
Recently, I read the books Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) by Bart Ehrman and The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Two of those authors come from an evangelical background and one is a former Catholic. None of them can exactly be described as conservative icons, so there's no reason why they'd be hostile to the good intentions of Jimmy Carter.
Ehrman has serious differences with Borg and Crossan, but one thing they all agree upon is that there is a massive consensus among biblical scholars, at least among those who do textual criticism, that of the 13 Pauline Letters in the New Testament, only seven of them were definitely written by the apostle Paul, and that the Pastoral Epistles I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus were not.
These are the 7 letters (with consensus dates  considered genuine by most scholars:(the undisputed epistles):
Romans (ca. 55-58 AD)
Philippians (ca. 52-54 AD)
Galatians (ca. 55 AD)
Philemon (ca. 52-54 AD)
First Corinthians (ca. 53-54 AD)
Second Corinthians (ca. 55-56 AD)
First Thessalonians (ca. 51 AD)
The letters thought to be pseudepigraphic by the majority of modern scholars include:
The letters on which modern scholars are about evenly divided are:
An anonymous letter that nearly all modern scholars agree was probably not written by Paul is:
According to Raymond E. Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, 1997), the majority of scholars who accept a post-Pauline date of composition for the Pastorals favour the period 80-100. Scholars supporting a date in this mid range can draw on the description in 2 Timothy 1:5 of Timothy's Christian mother and Grandmother who passed on their faith, as alluding to the original audience being third generation Christians.
While Ehrman, Borg, Crossan, and the late Fr. Brown all agree on the list of books that are authentically the writings of the apostle and which ones were most likely written under his name by other people, there is a very serious disagreement between Ehrman and the others. Most biblical scholars, including the latter group, maintain that writing letters pseudepigraphically (or pseudonymously) under someone else's name was a common and accepted practice in the ancient world, often done out of respect by a disciple or follower of a respected teacher. Ehrman takes a much dimmer view, claiming that pseudonymously written letters are more properly called forgeries, and that forgeries were decried and resented just as much in the ancient world as they are in today's world.
In any case, whether they are forgeries that were meant to subvert and recast the original writings of St. Paul, or if they were letters written in his name by respectful followers of a beloved mentor, most biblical scholars agree that the letters to Timothy and Titus were not written by St. Paul himself, and these are where some of the most troublesome passages are when it comes to the treatment of women.
I think that Borg and Crossan make a pretty good case in their book that the real St. Paul was just as radically egalitarian and gender blind (as reflected in his uncontested original letters) as Jimmy Carter says he was. In fact, on a range of issues, from slavery, to obedience to earthly governmental authorities, and to the status of women in the church, there can be seen a "Radical Paul", a "Conservative Paul", and a "Reactionary Paul."
One key thing to remember. A lot of things that St. Paul wrote about in his original letters can be considered an interim ethic. I think it's pretty clear in reading his letters that he thought that the general resurrection had already begun, that the parousia, the Second Coming of Christ, was imminent, and that the Kingdom of God was going to be established at literally any moment. When this didn't occur within Paul's lifetime (with his death occurring around 60 AD), later Christians had to do some reinterpreation of what all this meant. A good argument could be made (and is made by Borg and Crossan) that the authors of Timothy and Titus were more focused on structure and good church order than on the imminent End of Ages. My own guess would be that in the gender-conservative world of Paul's gentile converts there was growing consternation over chaotic situations in the early churches with their rampant egalitarianism, people speaking in tongues and prophecies, and with women claiming the gifts of the Holy Spirit celebrating the eucharist and leading congregations. It may very well be that that they wanted to reign all this in and put a more familiar structure around it. Now, this isn't a matter of fourth century Church Fathers doing this. This is happening around 80-100 AD, by the very authors themselves of what would later become acknowledged as scripture .
Cases in point...
The radically egalitarian Paul of Galatians (celebrating equal status by virtue of baptism):
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendant, heirs according to the promise.
The radically egalitarian Paul of Romans (celebrating female and male co-workers in ministry):
I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is (also) a minister of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a benefactor to many and to me as well.
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I am grateful but also all the churches of the Gentiles;
greet also the church at their house.
Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the firstfruits in Asia for Christ.
Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners; they are prominent among the apostles and they were in Christ before me.
Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.
Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys.
Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus.
Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus.
Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.
Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them.
Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the holy ones who are with them.
Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
The reactionary "Paul" of Timothy (telling women to be quiet in church and subservient to men):
It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.
Similarly, (too,) women should adorn themselves with proper conduct, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hairstyles and gold ornaments, or pearls, or expensive clothes, but rather, as befits women who profess reverence for God, with good deeds.
A woman must receive instruction silently and under complete control.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be quiet.
For Adam was formed first, then Eve.
Further, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed.
But she will be saved through motherhood, provided women persevere in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
- 1 Timothy 2:8-15
What about, then, verses that seem to denigrate the status of women in the uncontested Pauline corpus, like this one from 1 Corinthians?
As in all the churches of the holy ones, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. But if they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.
Did the word of God go forth from you? Or has it come to you alone?
- 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36
People can take it any way they like, I'm no biblical scholar myself, but Borg and Crossan claim that this is a redaction, or an insertion made to Corinthians at a later date. They argue with some persuasive force that the evidence of an insertion lies in the fact that the preceding and following text flows better without it.
Maybe yes, maybe no, but if I look at the difference between the quotes in Galataion & Romans vs. Timothy, I find it very hard to believe that they were written by the same person.
Nevertheless, I do not deny that they are both considered authentic scripture, and this is the issue Jimmy Carter has to deal with and is failing to deal with.
The pagan Greco-Roman world was full of priestesses, a generally easygoing attitude of tolerance towards religious diversity, homosexuality, and medicines of sterility. For one reason or another the early churches were in opposition to all of these, regarding each in some way as a form of idolatry.
Now, if some people today consider that Hellenistic worldview to be superior to a biblical (and therefore Judaic) worldview, they should just admit it and stop trying to appeal to the bible. After all, in a lot of ways, we are more of a Hellenistic culture today in both our body worship on the one hand, and a sexual puritanism on the other hand (which owes more to Stoicism than to Judaism). If people think the Greco-Roman ethics were superior, they should just come out and say so.
If we don't want to do that, if instead we have good and laudable reasons for changing our attitudes towards these things, we need to do so with reason and with appeals to tradition and the development of the Church as a living organism, as a Pilgrim People working its way through the wilderness towards God. I don't think we can do it through appeals to scripture alone, because quite frankly, it just isn't there.