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By Bruce Atkinson Ph.D.
Special to Virtueonline
May 18, 2024

With the upcoming ACNA meeting of bishops in June and published calls to no longer ignore the elephant in the living room involving Women's Ordination (WO), I would like to offer this concise yet thorough summary of the issue... and my own proposed solution. I have studied this issue for decades and valued the 2003 AMiA report led by the late great Bishop John H. Rodgers, Jr. -- A Report of the Study Concerning the Ordination of Women Undertaken by the Anglican Mission in America (PDF), as well as Bishop Rodgers' own efforts to resolve this issue (e.g., https://virtueonline.org/serious-argument-against-ordination-women-priesthood-episcopat)

I propose here a scripture-based and rational argument that ACNA leaders can provide regarding changing the current situation. In ACNA, some of the leaders have unfortunately called their unresolved stance "dual integrities"-- which has been rightly criticized as an oxymoron. Through the prophet Amos, God underlined this point with logic: "Can two even walk together if they do not agree on the direction"? And we all know that "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

First, as a founding member of ACNA, I must make my own bias clear. The final authority for my perspective on theology, ecclesiology, and morals is the divinely-inspired and infallible Holy Scriptures, particularly the New Testament. For me, 'church tradition' (after the Apostles were gone) takes a distant second place. Churches have often erred and this includes the earliest churches (witness Paul's rebukes in his letters to his church plants and our Lord's judgmental warnings to five of the seven churches Asia in Revelation 2 and 3).

Some things are clear, consistent, and unequivocal in the scriptures (like homosexual behavior being a sin) but in other issues (like WO) the scriptures have provided some exceptions to Paul's rule. We need discernment to tell the difference and know where to rightly draw the line. You cannot just make WO valid or invalid... because the teachings of Paul are balanced by the presence of prophetesses and deaconesses in the early church (which Paul did not condemn) and because of scriptures like Galatians 3:23-29 that proponents of WO can use for support. Is WO a secondary issue or a primary issue? One thing seems obvious to me: WO is associated with church order rather than morality or salvation. Thus, we cannot be as dogmatic about it as we can about sexual morality. Spiritual discernment and practical wisdom are called for.

Note that the New Testament does not discuss the issue of the sacramental ordination of clergy at all, neither male nor female. Therefore, where scriptural authority is concerned, nothing about the practice of sacramental ordination can be used as a valid biblical argument, pro or con. What became the tradition of clericalism (a ruling and elite priesthood order) only developed after the Apostles had passed. The closest the NT gets to supporting this is where Paul mentions roles of overseer, elder, and deacon (servant) and a few times where he or elders prayed and laid hands on disciples for specific tasks. This is hardly the same as what later became the sacrament of ordination and the Roman version of Apostolic Succession. That Jesus was against such a ruling privileged priesthood is evidenced in Mark 10:42-44 and Matthew 23:5-12, and also evidenced by Peter's view of the priesthood as being of ALL believers.

Points against WO: I never want to ignore clear scriptural advice. Like most of our ACNA bishops, I am generally against women's ordination above the level of deacon. Here is why.

1. The example of the inception of sin in the Garden of Eden should be sufficient to convince us. Eve was deceived by the serpent's subtle suggestion. Adam followed Eve's lead instead of stopping her-- and this was his original sin. Adam was created to be the leader and Eve the helper. There is nothing in the New Testament to indicate that this was to be changed in Christ's Church.

2. What Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim 2, cf. Titus 2:3-5) is that he did not allow women to have authority over men in the churches he planted. He also wrote elsewhere about the importance of male headship in the family and church (1 Cor 11: 3-10, 1 Cor 14:33-35, Eph 5:22-23).

3. Jesus Himself chose none of His many women disciples to be Apostles. The Holy Spirit chose no women to write any of the New Testament. Should we not follow God's divine example in our own church polity?

4. Additionally, there is 2000 years of church tradition in which the saints read, interpreted, and obeyed the scriptures in just this way. "Women's Ordination" is a relatively new thing and is certainly not a traditionally Christian thing. Changing such a long-standing Christian tradition must require very clear evidence from Jesus and the Apostles. But this evidence is not found in the gospels or epistles. Only Galatians 3:23-29 gives a message about the spiritual equality of the sexes, but even this passage says nothing about the proper roles of ministry in the church for women.

Points for WO: The whole counsel of God provides some mitigating circumstances, even if they are not fully as authoritative as Jesus's example of no women Apostles or Paul's strong recommendations to Timothy for his churches.

1. As I have mentioned before, the issue of Women's Ordination (WO) is not at all the same as the homosexuality issue where there are absolutely no exceptions in either Old Testament or New Testament that this behavior is an egregious sin that will keep a person out of the Kingdom of God (e.g., 1 Cor 6:9). Besides, even Paul's strong recommendation about women was not about sin or salvation, it was about church order, such that Paul's advice in Romans 14 about dealing with secondary matters may apply.

2. The role of women in God's kingdom on earth has clearly had some exceptions in the Bible where women have had authority without any divine judgment or criticism. For example, there is Deborah the Judge in the OT, and deaconesses and prophetesses in the NT.

3. Jesus Himself said nothing about the role of women in His church (this is telling in terms of its relative importance to God... who knew presciently what we would be dealing with today). Two facts apply here. First, women were regarded as virtual chattel and not even to be spoken to in the street in 1st century Israel. Second, Jesus Himself not only spoke to women in the street, He elevated women (and their roles) above what was regarded as normative in His culture. This tells us a lot about the teleological direction we could expect to occur over time in the Kingdom of God. Note again Paul's teaching in Galatians 3:23-29 where egalitarianism is taught as being part of our freedom in Christ versus the Jewish laws and culture. As indicated in many other places, Paul sought to have the Gentile Christians avoid seriously taking on the Jewish cultural and ritualistic laws and ecclesiology. Only the moral laws applied to everyone. And the entire Church in Jerusalem agreed with this in its first Council (see Acts 15). We cannot avoid admitting that the rule... of women not having authority over men... was indeed part of that Jewish legal structure. Despite Paul's recommendation to Timothy, Paul was not shy about allowing women to lead where his own welfare (and thus that of the gospel) was concerned (as seen in Romans 16:1-4).

Summary opinion as it applies to ACNA: So the entire issue goes to wisdom. Having women bishops or rectors is a totally foolish idea... and is asking for trouble. It would certainly divide ACNA in a hostile and unreconcilable way, and it would lead to this Anglican church's downfall. Recent Anglican Church history has underlined this likelihood (e.g., TEC, ACofCanada, CofE). We are grateful that ACNA originally did create a church canon that disqualified women from the episcopate, i.e., no women bishops.

But a women's only deaconess order (diaconate) is biblically appropriate and absolutely needed.There is no reason not to honor women for their ministries in the church with a special women's order, even as Paul was not shy about praising Phoebe, Lydia, Prisca, and other women. I could even live with the current situation of women as deacons because they have triple male headship over them (Archbishop, Bishop, Rector).

However, I happen to strongly believe (according to the scriptures as well as church tradition) that women should never be allowed to enter the traditional male only priesthood order (and especially not the episcopate) because then they would have authority over men in the church.

Bottom line practical solution: The ACNA needs to put in place canons that prevent future ordinations of women to the traditional male only priesthood, and make sure that present women presbyters do not have roles which place them in authority over men. These women should instead become the top leaders of the new, female only diaconate.

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