Jason’s Questions: #11 What Is the Role of Women in the Church?

I realize that venturing into the question of the role of women in the church can be a dangerous undertaking for a man, but, as they say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread!  That said, I would think most folks who have been in evangelical Protestant churches can relate to this issue.  As long as I can remember, the role of women was a topic of conversation in the various congregations I attended.  It came up in a number of contexts, including whether women could teach co-ed adult Bible studies, serve as deacons, hold the title of “minister,” or be “senior pastors.”  The more “conservative” churches I was in generally answered “No” to at least the last three of these questions, while the more “progressive” ones answered “No” only to the last one.[1]

My own thinking on this issue as a Protestant changed over time.  Initially, I took a
very “conservative” line and had great doubt as to whether women could serve even
as teachers of co-ed adult Bible studies without violating the New Testament’s command that women “keep silent” in church.  Gradually, however, my position changed, and I came to believe it was perfectly fine for women to teach men, serve as deacons, and hold the title of “minister” because, after all, in Christ, there was neither “Jew nor Greek” or “male and female.”[2]  At the same time, I have to admit that most of the change in my thinking was driven not so much by scripture but by a desire not to be a jerk about “leadership” in the church.  Implicit in my thinking, of course, was the notion that it was somehow depriving women of some great honor not otherwise available to them if they weren’t allowed to be pastors and such.  I mean, there wasn’t anything else that could be as important as being a pastor in a church, right?

For me at least, underlying all this was a complete lack of clarity on a few fundamental issues, such as what it meant to exercise authority in the church in the first place, whether there was even such a thing as “clergy”, and what the relationship of the clergy function was to other functions one could have in life.  On the first of these issues, it seemed to me that “exercising authority” in the church primarily meant the right to talk, be it from the pulpit or in a Sunday school class, and it seemed to me that others shared this view as well.  In this vein, I once read of a popular female Christian speaker who explicitly tells the men in her audiences that she is not trying to exercise authority over them.

From where I am now, I’m at a loss to understand how I ever could have thought that by simply sitting in a stadium listening to someone talk, I was somehow submitting to the spiritual authority of the speaker.  But the concept of “church” within the Protestant world was so amorphous that that’s exactly the conclusion I at one time drew.  If a “church” is wherever “two or three are gathered in His name,” then we’re “in church” every time we meet with Christian friends, and we always have to be on our guard that someone’s not inappropriately exercising authority.[3]  There’s no indication in the New Testament, however, that exercising authority in the church is primarily a function of who has the right to speak on matters of faith, no matter the location.  Rather, it seemed to me that the little the New Testament told us about authority in the early Church showed that it involved the ability to settle disputed questions of doctrine, such as was done at the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15, and it gave us virtually no information on what the church’s leaders did in worship services.

On the issue of whether there is even such a thing as “clergy” in the church, I was always confused as well.  I come from a tradition that emphasized the Protestant understanding of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”  What I took from that, and what was even at times explicitly stated, was that there was no fundamental difference between the role of paid ministers and the role of the people in the pews.  And, if that’s the case, why in the world should I object to women being paid ministers?  There wasn’t anything unique about being a “minister” to begin with.

In contrast to what seems to me the hopeless muddle of Protestant thinking on how women fit into the church, Catholic doctrine brings clarity that helps us understand what the point of the clergy is and also puts their role in the proper context, with the result that the amazingly high value of women is affirmed and recognized.  First, the Church articulates a clear reason that priests and bishops should be men:  they stand as representatives of Christ in relationship to Christ’s Bride, the Church.[4]  See Catechism Nos. 1546-51.  And if the Church is female, her priests should be male–it doesn’t have anything to do with “who’s got the conch” (as Nikki would say).

The primary job of the priest, like the primary job of a husband, is to take care of his bride.  And the priest accomplishes this task, most of all, through the administration of the sacraments by which grace is conveyed to the individual members of the Church.[5]  It is because the Church takes this responsibility of priests so seriously that she, as a matter of church discipline, insists on priestly celibacy.  A married priest’s loyalties would be divided between his spiritual bride and his earthly bride.[6]

Now, how does this insistence on a male priesthood not demean women but rather result, as I’ve suggested, in recognition of their value?  I’d suggest this result stems from two things:  (1) the Church’s clarity on the female nature of the Church; and (2) on her devotion to the Blessed Virgin.  If the Church itself is feminine, if it is the very Bride of Christ, that alone gives significance to women in the Church.  On top of that, though, a Church that values the Mother of God is a Church that values women and motherhood period.  Indeed, it is a Church that says that being a woman and a mother–that says that the capacity to bear and give life to another human being–is more important than being a priest.  And it is for this reason that the Catechism says:

In the Church this communion of men with God, in the “love [that] never ends,” is the purpose which governs everything in her that is a sacramental means, tied to this passing world.  “[The Church’s] structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members.  And holiness is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom.”  Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as “the bride without spot or wrinkle.”  This is why the “Marian” dimension of the Church precedes the “Petrine.”

In other words, male priests and bishops, following in St. Peter’s footsteps, are only the guardians of the Church:  it’s women, following the example of our Blessed Mother, who give the Church her life.


[1]               There are, of course, Protestant churches that answer all four questions, “Yes.”

[2]               I was never in a church that had a female senior pastor so never fully resolved my thinking as a Protestant on that issue.

[3]               This isn’t what Matthew 18:19-20 says by the way.  It simply says that when two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, He’s there among them—not that
simply gathering together with Christian brothers and sisters makes the group a
“church” or makes the gathering a “worship service.”

[4]               I’m leaving aside the issue of deacons for the time being and may get back to that some other time.

[5]               As this suggests, the job of a Catholic priest is most defined by what he does, not by what he says.  Because of this, Catholics don’t conclude that everyone who happens to be talking about spiritual matters, whether men or women, is doing something exclusively reserved to those given positions of authority in the Church.  For this reason, the Church has no problem recognizing women as “Doctors of the Church”–theologians who have greatly contributed to the Church’s understanding of God.

[6]               While I’m on this topic, it’s worth mentioning that the Church is fully aware that Peter was married, and the rule of priestly celibacy is just that–a rule–which could be changed if it were determined necessary.

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One Response to Jason’s Questions: #11 What Is the Role of Women in the Church?

  1. Thomas says:

    In the Old Testament Scriptures, there are two major types of ministry; priestly ministry and prophetic ministry. Priestly ministry was restricted to males, and for that matter, males from a certain linage. Some prophetic ministry was done by priests (Ezekiel) but most of the prophets were not priests. However, sometimes women were used by God for prophetic ministry (and also sometimes for that 3rd group of leadership, civil rule).
    This distinction was continued in the New Testament and, subsequently, by the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox churches. Take, for example, St Catherine or Mother Teresa as examples of prophetic ministry.
    With the Reformation, however, the Protestant ecclesial bodies adopted an pretty much exclusively prophetic model of ministry (rightly preaching the Word). Hence, the issue of ministry by women becomes complicated for them since both Scripture and Tradition have a less narrow-minded conception of ministry than that prevailing in most Protestant bodies which do not recognize a priestly office at all.

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