By Dennis Knapp
In past articles, I wrote about The Jesus Prerogative on women’s ordination and on whether or not the Catholic Church can change its view on women’s ordination. In this article, I will examine the biblical passages that support women’s ordination. What do these passages teach us? Given these passages, can the Catholic Church amend its views on women’s ordination?
Passages In Direct Support of Women’s Ordination
Sadly, no passage in the bible directly supports women’s ordination. In fact, when it comes to women leaders in the early Church, St. Paul stated the following:
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)
Ouch! These passages not only speak against women’s ordination, but they also sound very misogynistic to today’s readers. How could St. Paul write such things? Didn’t he know Mary Magdalene?
Mary Magdalene: the Apostle to the Apostles
Did St. Paul not know of Mary Magdalene’s preeminence among the early disciples of Jesus? Many that support women’s ordination see in Mary Magdalene the key that unlocks women’s ordination to the priesthood. One such person is Professor Joan Taylor of King’s College, London. She states:
Within the Church she does have tremendous power, and there are lots of women who look…to Mary Magdalene as a foundation for women’s leadership within the Church.
Moreover, let’s not forget Mary the mother of Jesus. If any such person deserves to speak in the Church, its her. Did St. Paul not know of her status among the early Christians? Obviously, St. Paul knew of these extraordinary women, yet he still wrote the passages above.
Passages In Indirect Support of Women Ordination
Many who support women’s ordination do see some passages (and some references to individual women) as biblical support for women’s ordination. Consider the following:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
The argument goes that since Christians are one in Christ, all are equal in Christ and therefore ordination is open to women. Remember, the same person who wrote this verse also wrote the verses 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Can we come to such a reading given St. Paul’s other teaching on the subject?
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (deacon) of the church at Cenchreae. (Romans 16:1)
The Greek word for servant is diakonos. Some translations either use deacon or servant. The meaning of this word by St. Paul is clear. Phoebe was a servant of the Church at Cenchreae.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (Romans 16:7)
Some translate this passage as if Andronicus and Junia were apostles. Some translate this verse as if they were well known or prominent among the apostles, not that they were themselves apostles. The Catholic Church does not count them as apostles.
I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:2-3)
Some read this passage as an indication that these women lead the Church at Philippi. Again, given St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, this understanding seems a bit off. How did they labor “side by side” with St. Paul? St. Paul offers no explanation or further information.
Women of the Old Testament
Furthermore, to many that support women’s ordination, two women leaders stand out in the Old Testament as exemplars that prefigure women’s leadership and eventual ordination in the Church—the judge Deborah and Queen Esther.
Deborah was a judge and prophetess in pre-monarchy Israel. Judges 4:4-6 states:
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.
Eventually, Deborah advises Barak to raise an army of 10,000 men to defeat the Canaanites at the river Kishon. He does so, but only if Deborah accompanies the army. She warns him that his reliance on her will diminish his glory after the victory promised by the God. For the full story of Deborah, click here.
Esther stands out as the one of only three women in either the Catholic Old and New Testament with whom there exists an entire book about (the other two are Ruth and Judith). The story of Esther shows how God uses Esther as queen of Persia to save the people of Israel from destruction at the hands Xerxes I’s evil vizier, Haman. As queen, Esther used her influence over Xerxes to save her people. The Jewish holiday Purim celebrates this event. Read the full story of Esther starting here.
Moreover, clearly God chose to use two extraordinary women in His plans to save His people. God holds this prerogative. So too does Jesus. Just as God chose women in His salvation of His people in the Old Testament, Jesus also could have chosen women in His plan of salvation in the New Testament. Jesus had the precedent of Deborah, Esther, Ruth, and Judith to work with to make this choice, yet He did not…
Final Thoughts On the Biblical Case for Women’s Ordination
In conclusion, what do these biblical passages teach us about women’s ordination? These passages teach us that there exists no real biblical support for women’s ordination. Not directly or indirectly. St. Paul seems to come off as almost misogynistic in his assessment of woman leadership in the Church. The passages naming individual women also leave much open for debate and multiple interpretations. What is a deacon in the early Church? Is it an ordained office? Were there differences between men and women under that title? What did it mean to work “side by side” with St. Paul? Did it mean as an equal with St. Paul? Clearly, St. Paul’s word in 1 Corinthian 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 indicate he did not mean what those who support women’s ordination hope it means.
The Jesus Prerogative Revisited
Furthermore, since women like Deborah, Esther, Ruth, and Judith existed in Jesus’ past as heroines of faith, Jesus has a precedent with which to work (especially with the judge Deborah) if He desired to appoint female apostles. These same women apostles would eventually ordain women bishops and priests. These same women bishops would then ordain other women as bishops and priest, and so on…but such did not occur. We therefore must accept that Jesus did not will or desire this and nor should we.
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