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The genesis of the debate

18 January 2013

Jody Stowell believes that the Bible reflects the equality of men and women



I believe that the case for women and men to work alongside each other in the episcopate is an issue of justice and equality which is found firmly in the biblical narrative. My primary case for women bishops would be what I understand to be the overall story of gender found in the Bible, from which we understand something of the very nature of God.

As in all good stories, we must start at the very beginning. Our case begins in Genesis 1.26, where we first find Humankind (traditionally rendered "Man" - the capital "M" denoting the inclusive representation of men and women within a "type"). This type of Humankind is then differentiated, male and female, and both are said to be made in the image of God.

In Genesis 2, we find that this interplay becomes further explored as the first human (Hebrew "adam" or "Dustling") is made from the ground (Hebrew "adamah" or "Dust"). We then learn that "it is not good for adam to be alone," and so the adam is made to sleep, and from the adam two different beings emerge, the man (Hebrew "iysh") and the woman ("ishshahi").

It is clear from the narrative that the adam who fell asleep is not quite the same as the iysh who wakes up. In other words, there was no man without woman, and no woman without man. We define each other. In one fell swoop, a number of arguments suggesting a divinely established hierarchy between the man and the woman are demolished. Adam was not "made first"; Eve was not made from an offcut.


So MAN and woman are uniquely and equally made in the image of God. So far, so good; but then it all goes wrong. In Genesis 3, the relationships disintegrate - not just between God and humankind, but between humankind and the Creation, and between the two humans.

Man and woman find themselves in an unequal relationship of domination and oppression. This is a direct result of the brokenness that they find themselves in, because they choose to step out of the patterns of relationship that would cause them to flourish - the story traditionally called the Fall.

The inequality found in the relationship between men and women is as a result of sin rather than divine order. The man and the woman find themselves in patterns of relationship which are destructive.

From here, and very quickly, we move from the happy equal partnership of male and female found in Genesis 1 and 2 to a situation where women are interchangeable when it comes to sex, marriage, and motherhood. In a few short years, we find Solomon not with one wife, but with 700, not to mention the concubines - and all this is a far cry from the initial intention.

The biblical narrative, however, does not leave us without clues about what God's intention is regarding this situation. As with all things broken, by intention or failure, God's desire is for redemption and restoration. We find many stories throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament which indicate that God is working to restore the relationship between men and women to the equality of shared humanity found in Genesis 1 and 2.

The first obvious example is Abram and Sarai. Abram does not understand that Sarai is as much a part of the promise of blessing given in Genesis 12; he has absorbed the mind-set that she is simply an interchangeable object. What is more, she is not going to be very useful for his job of "being the father of many nations", because she is "barren".

So, when he goes to Egypt, he sells her to Pharaoh to save his skin and get rid of his barren wife. But this is not the way that God sees it. Sarai is to be the mother of many nations: the promise is for her, too, directly and equally alongside Abram, in the story of God. God thus rescues Sarai from Egypt.

There are many other stories throughout scripture which indicate God's desire for full inclusion and equality between men and women. From the Old Testament, there are Deborah, Ruth, and Esther; from the New Testament, Mary, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Lydia, who were all shown to have specific qualities of leadership - whether as the archetype of a disciple, as in the case of Mary, or those in church leadership, as with Phoebe and Priscilla, or business, as with Lydia.

My favourite women from the New Testament, however, are those who remain unnamed in the text: the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who poured oil on Jesus's feet. These women represent the restoration of women to their full humanity by God. Jesus takes their shame, whatever it is deemed to be, and restores them and returns them to their community.

Their namelessness indicates the relative invisibility of women in scripture, and thus the place of women at that time, and yet their stories are ones that Jesus makes sure are heard. He does this by subverting the assumptions not only of the time, but our assumptions, too.

It is, of course, not enough to say that all scripture unequivocally affirms women in church leadership. We all know that there are tricky texts, such as 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14. The text in 1 Corinthians 14.34, which states that women are not permitted to speak in church, is clear to those who endorse a "plain-meaning" approach to scripture, because it simply "says what it says". How can women lead in churches when these words exist in scripture?

Even within the same letter of Paul (1 Corinthians 11.5), however, it seems clear that women do, in fact, speak in church - to pray and prophesy. If we take the 1 Corinthians 14 verse at "plain meaning", then we do so in contradiction to the whole narrative of scripture, and even to the rest of Paul's teaching within the same letter.

We will do well to remember that we are listening to one half of a conversation when we read the letters in scripture: sometimes we do not have the knowledge to understand exactly what the other half of the conversation was. To interpret this one verse in such a way that it seems to undermine the story of God's restoration of the relationship between male and female does violence to God's written word. We need to take seriously the scholarship that honours the text, and yet finds this particular verse untenable, if we are to take the whole Bible seriously.

Similar considerations apply to the contentious 1 Timothy 2.12, one of the most difficult verses to interpret in scripture, and one that, the Rt Revd Professor N. T. Wright suggests, should be interpreted in the opposite way from that in which it has traditionally been understood. Rather than saying that women should not teach, Professor Wright says, Paul is writing to endorse women teaching. Verse 12, rather than saying that women should not have authority over a man, is saying: "I don't mean to imply that I'm now setting up women as the new authority over men, in the same way as previously men held authority over women" (Paul for Everyone: Pastoral Letters: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, SPCK, 2003).

As Professor Wright goes on to say, the signs are there that Ephesus, the context into which Paul is writing to Timothy, is rife with the cult of Artemis and the worship of the goddess Diana. In this situation, Paul is keen to say that women are not now "in charge", in the way that men had been assumed to be before Christ's reversal of that assumed order. Nevertheless, the dynamite in 1 Timothy is that Paul is saying that women must be allowed to be educated - learners and teachers under submission to God - just as men have been and should continue to be.


I delight in the God who comes to dwell with humanity and who has worked with humanity in the particularity of its historical context. But this means that it is not neat and tidy. The "right" options are not always open to God.

When I read the book of Joshua, for example, I find myself confused and disturbed by the divinely ordered genocide I find there. I would argue that that is exactly the right way to read it. It is confusing and deeply disturbing. I do not think it sanctions those actions; instead, I choose to understand it within the context of God's working within humanity as it is.

Sometimes, this means that there are practices that were culturally appropriate at a particular point in human history which are simply not appropriate, or even morally right, at this point in human history. We would not advocate the Joshua approach to geographical relocation now, and we rightly question whether it was the right thing then. We do not consider women as chattels to be bought and sold; we happily take out mortgages, wear hats and polyester/cotton-mix clothes, and live in a world where slavery is understood to be a bad thing.

All of these biblical practices we have understood within their particular cultural and historical context, and we have reversed the practice seen in the pages of scripture. When we read scripture, we must read it with those lenses, rejoicing that God enters human history, and that that includes whatever mess is there. But we must also open our eyes to scan the whole story: a story that affirms the place of women and men together, equally, for the glory of God.

As Christmas and Epiphany fade from our memories, and our world is busy with day-to-day life again, we can forget the radical nature of our faith. The nature of the world was changed by the ordinary event of birth. We are now in the pregnant pause before women bishops are given life. When they appear, it will be world-changing, but will also seem a very ordinary radical event.

The Revd Jody Stowell is Assistant Curate of All Saints', Harrow Weald.

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