Women as Bishops: What Would the Bible Say?

On Monday, July 14, the Church of England voted to allow women to be ordained as bishops. Reuters in London reported:
Two years ago, a similar proposal failed narrowly due to opposition from traditionalist lay members, to the dismay of modernisers, the Church hierarchy and politicians.

But after a five-hour debate on Monday, the General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England, voted overwhelmingly in favour of an amended plan at its meeting in the northern English city of York.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, commented: "Today is the completion of what was begun over 20 years ago with the ordination of women as priests. I am delighted with today's result."

There are others, of course, who consider this move as not being theologically correct. Bishop John Goddard of Burnley is reported to have said that he could not vote in favor of the legislation “out of obedience to God.” “Out of theological conviction, I must vote no,” he said, according to The Press Association. (Stephen Castle, The New York Times)

However, women clergy have been delighted. The Dean of Salisbury, June Osborne, told the BBC: "I don't think you can overstate the fact that the Church of England allowing women to take up the role of bishop is going to change the Church." She also anticipated that "it's going to change our society as well because it's one more step in accepting that women are really and truly equal in spiritual authority, as well as in leadership in society." (BBC News)

What Would the Bible Say?

There are various forms of church government and organization in the world today, among which the episcopal system is one. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines "episcopacy" as follows:
EPISCOPACY, in some Christian churches, the office of a bishop and the concomitant system of church government based on the three orders, or offices, of the ministry: bishops, priests, and deacons. The origins of episcopacy are obscure, but by the 2nd century ad it was becoming established in the main centres of Christianity. It was closely tied to the idea of apostolic succession, the belief that bishops can trace their office in a direct, uninterrupted line back to the Apostles of Jesus.

The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Churches are some of those who follow the episcopal polity system.

Many modern day Methodist churches follow a modified version of episcopal polity known as Connexionalism which is more mission-oriented, with itinerant evangelists playing important roles in the life of the churches.

Most Reformed churches, however, follow the Presbyterian polity system in which local churches are supervised by a body of elders (presbyters) within the local church. Groups of these local churches are governed by a higher assembly of elders known as the presbytery or classis, which again are grouped into synods. The synods combine further into a general assembly. So, the structure of administration is bottom-up in contrast to the episcopal system.

Baptist Churches usually follow the congregationalist polity in which church governance is local. Each local church is self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.

While it might not be very helpful, at this moment in the history of the church, to begin critiquing the various systems, it is certainly helpful to remember that biblically the Head of the church is not any bishop or pastor but Christ alone (Eph.5:23). Also, the doctrine of apostolic succession is not biblical, as it is only Christ who calls the individual to the ministry of the Gospel. Jesus made it clear to His disciples that He wasn’t interested in a human organization (Mark 9:38-40). Paul didn't get his authority from the Twelve Apostles or from Peter but from Jesus Christ. However, he did mention that James, Peter, and John, who seemed to be pillars, gave him the right hand of fellowship (Gal.2:9,10). But, that didn't mean that their position in the church superseded his or anybody's. In the next verses it was Paul who had to theologically confront Peter with regard to a matter of eating with Gentiles. Fellowship is the key word in all this. Yet, again the New Testament doesn't speak of believers in a church electing their elders; it says that the apostles appointed them by laying on of hands. But, certainly, there is that episode in Acts 6, where the church is asked to select spirit-filled Christians to serve as deacons whom the apostles appointed for that office by the laying on of hands.

Regarding women, there are no scriptures to support their appointment to the office of a pastor/bishop. The qualifications listed in 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 says that the man must be the husband of one wife, which presupposes that the scripture wasn't anticipating women into that role. Also, though the Bible doesn't discourage the appointment of women in leadership positions (Esther was respected for being a good leader), it does however specify that the woman cannot assume leadership in the church separate from the leadership of her husband. In an earlier article, it has been noted that "a woman can be a pastor in a church if her husband is a pastor. However, if her husband is not a pastor, then her appointment as a shepherd of the flock can assume her being in an authoritative position above her husband in the church, which would immediately convey role confusion with respect to the Genesis principle; therefore the injunction that a woman should not have authority over a man" is given by Paul in 1Tim.2:12. (See The Position of Women in the Bible). Even the man would be disqualified if he is not a good leader at home and if his marital and social life is disorderly. The appointment is never individualistic. The scripture specifies that the person who is aspiring for the office of the bishop/elder must be one "who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?" (1Ti 3:4-5). The specification regarding the deacons amplifies: "their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.(1Ti 3:11). Thus, even the man's appointment cannot be independent of his wife. But, the argument from "List of Qualifications" has a problem. 1Timothy 3 doesn't seem to expect deaconnesses as well; however, Romans 16:1 talks of Phoebe as a deaconness in the church. We must resolve to the Genesis argument (see again The Position of Women in the Bible) for a root analysis of the issue.
In 1Timothy 2:12, however, Paul instructs Timothy that a woman is not permitted to teach or to have authority over a man. The context here points to a family couple (“a woman” and “a man”) and the rationale is given from the Genesis story of the first Man and his Wife. In a husband-wife relationship, a woman is not permitted to have authority over or try to dominate her husband. Peter amplifies it further when he instructs: “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, (1Pe 3:1). However, this doesn’t mean that a woman cannot teach at all. Writing to Timothy again, he reminds him of the faith of Timothy’s mother and his grandmother, and of how from his childhood he was instructed in the Scriptures – certainly, by his mother and grandmother because Timothy’s father was not a Jew (2Tim.1:5; 3:15; Acts 16:1). (The Position of Women in the Bible)

Certainly, to be a deacon and to be a bishop/pastor is not the same thing. In only the latter's case the words "rule" (to set in order) and to "take care of the church of God" apply. There is only one case of a woman assuming leadership in the church in the New Testament. But, the case there is negative:
I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. (Rev 2:20)
This doesn't mean that women cannot be in ministry. The New Testament does list women like Dorcas (helper of the poor, Acts 9:36), Priscilla (along with her husband she was fellow-worker with Paul, Rom.16:3), Phoebe (Deaconness, Rom.16:1), and the elect lady of 2 John who served the Lord. Paul mentions women who labored with him in the Gospel (Phil.4:3). Church history overflows with women missionaries who pioneered and led ministries in various mission fields. However, we do not find in the New Testament any reason to support the idea that a woman can be the shepherd of a church, independently of her husband (if he is not called into ministry). This applies for any polity whatsoever, episcopal, presbyterian, or congregationalist.

Again, this doesn't mean that a woman cannot be a teacher. Every person in the body of Christ is expected to eventually become a teacher of God's truths (Heb.5:12). Mature Christian women are called to provide leadership for the younger ones (Tit.2:3-5). They do not need any human "ordination" to do that. Women can also be teachers of God's word in person and through their writings. That doesn't assume that they are assuming authority over their husbands; but, that they are simply being right stewards of God's word. They are expected to be "teachers of good things" (Tit.2:3). "Good" and "Truth" don't have gender prejudice. Proverbs 31 is a classic example of the teaching of a mother to her son, king Lemuel. The literary form indicates that it was a teaching she gave him when he had grown up enough to understand the meaning of sex and marriage. We have Christian women in the Body of Christ who have been a great inspiration and source of scriptural understanding to both men and women alike. But, then the New Testament doesn't mention laying on of hands for the ministry of teaching. Eldership in a church by laying on of hands is a different matter. It becomes a matter of church government and administration.


The Case of Deborah the Prophetess

In the Old Testament, the prophets played an important role as seers in the community. They provided spiritual leadership to the nation and had the power to anoint kings and other prophets, but not the priests. Deborah was a prophetess who played an important role during the age of the Judges (Judges 4). However, in the New Testament such a prophetic role doesn't exist. The only role that a "prophetess" called Jezebel assumed is depicted in a negative form in the book of Revelation. In the New Testament, the prophet might see and speak of things to come; however, he had no authority over any Christian's or Church's decision. That is one reason why Paul listened to the prophets' prophesy but didn't listen to their advice. (Acts 21:4; 20:22,23; 21:11,12). A woman can prophesy in public in the New Testament (1Cor.11:5; Acts 21:9). If there is no man to assume the role of leadership, the woman must fulfill her role of evangelizing, helping, teaching, and proclaiming God's word. The New Testament rule doesn't apply for non-ecclesiastical government. A woman can be a judge and governor in the secular arena if she has the wisdom for the work. However, she cannot be a judge and ruler in the church, because the church is not a loose society but one body and one family. The rule of a family extends to the church. The order of the family is described in 1 Corinthians 11:3:

...the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

But What About Those Women Who Have Already Been Ordained and Accepted?

Human ordination cannot bypass the divine order. The calling of God on a woman cannot be altered by any human. Any alteration can certainly be corrected and the woman find her proper ministerial place in the body of Christ. The New Testament specifies that women can prophesy, evangelize, and teach, as seen is sections above.

Further Reading

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