Tom Wright on Anglican Vote Rejecting Female Bishops

Tom Wright has an op-ed in The Times of London today commenting on the Anglican decision not to ordain women as bishops. Wright’s article is a response in large part to Prime Minister David Cameron’s admonition to the church to “get with the program.” Wright thinks Cameron oversteps his bounds in telling the church what it ought to do. Perhaps I’m not the only one who would note the irony of an Anglican church leader complaining about the state chiming-in on church matters. But that is not what I am mainly concerned about here.

At the end of the article, Wright tries to make a biblical case for egalitarianism in the appointment of bishops. There’s nothing new here, and I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments for and against the issue in this blog post. But one paragraph in particular is telling and really does serve to highlight the difference between egalitarians and complementarians in our approach to scripture. Wright writes,

The other lie to nail is that people who “believe in the Bible” or who “take it literally” will oppose women’s ordination. Rubbish. Yes, I Timothy ii is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else. That, in any case, is not where to start.

The verse that Wright alludes to is 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” This is the verse in which the issue of women serving as pastors is discussed more directly and explicitly than any other text in scripture. And yet somehow Wright believes that this text is “not where to start” in trying to understand what the Bible says about these things. This is an incredible claim.

The triumph of egalitarianism in many sectors of the church and biblical scholarship lies in this. It is now possible to declare the most relevant biblical texts to be the most irrelevant in settling the issue. Through a variety of subversive hermeneutical sleights of hand, egalitarians deftly set aside texts like 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 11:3. In effect, they have told us, “Nothing to see here, move along.”

Well, in spite of Wright’s protestations otherwise, there is something for Christians to see in 1 Timothy 2:12. It really does teach that Paul only intends qualified males to be pastors. It bears directly on the question of ordination in the C of E, but I doubt that many readers of the Times of London know that. Unfortunately, Wright doesn’t clarify the point but only obscures it.


  • alastairjroberts

    I actually believe that Wright is correct here: 1 Timothy 2 is not the place to start. We must rather start with Genesis 1-3, which is where Paul ultimately grounds his case. Unfortunately, Wright would probably not like the conclusions that such study would drive us to.

  • Denny Burk

    Alastair, that’s just the point. 1 Timothy 2:12-13 gives us an authoritative interpretation of Genesis 2. Paul’s words in this text aren’t just throw-away lines but actually comprise a profound interpretation of the foundational OT texts.

    • alastairjroberts

      True, but Paul’s authoritative interpretation doesn’t give us the same degree of substantial teaching on the subject that Genesis 1-3 does. Paul gives the ‘tl;dr’ summary, but Genesis fleshes it all out in considerable detail, providing us with a clearer rationale.

  • Don Johnson

    What Denny is doing is slandering egalitarians and I wish he would stop, this is NOT the way to treat other believers. To use terms like “subversive hermeneutical sleights of hand” is to pre-judge the way egalitarians understand these verses. It is exegetical differences that egals like me have with comps, so let’s discuss the exegesis and not resort to less.

    In my Sunday school class we are studying one of Paul’s letters, so I copy some of my challenges from it and modify it to apply to 1 Tim.

    Challenges to understanding Paul
    1. The letter is written in Koine Greek, while we speak English and things can get lost in translation.
    2. We are not the original audience, there could be a shared context known to both the audience and Paul that would not need to be stated explicitly in the letter, but that we do not know. This is especially true as we are not Timothy, a spiritual son of Paul, as such they would have a large shared context and could omit commonly known things between them as not needing to be stated explicitly.
    3. A letter is like half of a transcript of a phone conversation, there can be gaps in our knowledge about what is going on. We do our best to fill in any gaps.
    4. The culture of the 1st century is very different than the culture in the 21st century. We need to be careful to not “teleport” 21st century concepts (or 16th century questions ala Luther) back into a 1st century text.
    5. We cannot ask Paul for clarifications when we have questions like the original recipients perhaps could.
    6. Peter says in 2 Tim 3:15-16 that some of what Paul writes can be hard to understand in the 1st century, how much more is this true in the 21st century. Paul is the only such author of books in the Bible that comes with such a claim in Scripture itself of being hard to understand. In other words, to insist that what Paul wrote is “clear” is contradicted by Scripture itself and is therefore a form of arrogance.

    • alastairjroberts

      I’m sorry, Don, but when you look at the biblical teaching on such subjects more extensively, it is hard to attribute the egalitarian position to anything but ‘hermeneutical sleights of hand’ or profound biblical ignorance. The myopic fixation of many egalitarians on certain isolated texts dealt with piecemeal really misses the deep-rooted strength of the contrary position.

      By looking at 1 Timothy 2 in isolation from the wider biblical context egalitarian explanations may look more probable. However, placed in the context of the whole of the Scriptures, egalitarian objections soon start to look like special pleading.

        • alastairjroberts

          On this issue, I think that Wright makes a real pig’s ear of the biblical teaching. I think that he is guilty of the hermeneutical sleights of hand more than the biblical ignorance. I think that careful study of Genesis 1-3 would blow Wright’s case out of the water.

  • Don Johnson

    I have look at the Biblical teaching on such subjects extensively, studying both egal and comp authors. My conclusion is that the egal authors are more correct, altho I have learned things from comp authors. I see egalitarianism as a deep rooted teaching throughout Scripture and that Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc. were egalitarians. P.S. Just because egalitarianism is one of the principles of the Kingdom does not mean it is the highest principle, love is, and sometimes doing the loving thing will mean doing something that could be interpreted as not egalitarian.

    • Matthew R. Perry

      When looking at Jesus’ ministry, he chose all men as his disciples, serving as the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:19-22). He tells overseers and deacons to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:1-13). And in two spots in two different contexts the same principle of male leadership is found (1 Corinthians 11-14, and 1 Timothy 2) grounded in the creative order outlined in Genesis.

      • Brian MacArevey

        Yes, Jesus chose all men to be His apostles; but they all abandoned him, betrayed him, and lacked faith in him. His women disciples on the other hand were faithful, did not abandon him, and actually led the men back to Christ after Jesus rose from the dead.

  • Jett Cheek

    My beef with Denny is that he does with Wright what most do when they do not see eye to eye with him. Specifically, pull a quote, take it out of its context, blow it out of proportion, and twist its intended meaning.

  • Don Johnson

    Jesus had women for disciples, see Luke 8.

    Jesus did choose 12 apostles that were all free Torah-observing Jewish men, we are told in Scripture that they were going to judge to the 12 patriarchs/tribes of Israel. (Matt 19:28)

    Paul proclaims that Phoebe is a deacon of the church at Cencharae, near Corinth. This apparent contradiction with 1 Tim 3 is resolved when one realizes that the term used in the Greek could apply to both men and women as was done on tombstones in Ephesus.

    It is easy to teleport the 21st century meaning of “head” (meaning leader) back into 1st century texts, but one should not do that. Instead, one should try to discern what the metaphor meant in the 1st century.

      • Akash Charles

        you you admit to struggling with what the bible blatantly says,which basically means you cannot come to terms with the fact so you decide to ignoew those passages, ,considering God’s word irrelevant is hating it

        • Matt Cox

          Well i mean firstly i said nothing of myself, i simply questioned your statement (which was ridiculous). The bible is a complex mass of texts from a completely different cultural time, written in two different and complex languages. Interpretation of the bible is always going to be challenging.

          Also suggesting that struggling with the bible =/=viewing God’s word as irrelevant and ignoring texts is ludicrous. There are some brutal parts of the Old Testament, the harsh levitical laws, the David committing murder and adultery. If they don’t make you struggle, at least initially then there is something wrong with you…..

          Who says egalitarians ignore texts anyway. They simply interpret the verses in a different way to you. And why does that mean you can’t show a little grace rather than telling people they hate the Bible.

          • Akash Charles

            Firstly I never said struggling in my first comment

            I was talking about well read egalitarian scholars, and yes there are many interpretations of the bible and many of them by people who hate the bible!!!- we live in a sinful world, surprise!!!

            Um washing off verses in 1 timothy 2 etc is ignoring as per the current definition of the word ignoring according to the world!!!

            • Matt Cox

              Why do people who interpret the bible differently to you hate the Bible? What makes you so definitely right and them so definitely wrong that they must hate the bible to think differently?

              And i’m egalitarian and i don’t ignore any verses from the bible, i just happen to interpret them differently to you, that doesn’t mean i hate the bible, it means we use exegesis, context and the interpretation of greek words differently.

              I can accept you didn’t say struggle in your first comment but that doesn’t really change the fact you are essentially saying egalitarians hate the bible which is just outrageous, graceless and inaccurate.

  • Don Johnson

    Speaking to 2 main points that Tom Wright made:

    1) The idea of progress is suspect, so no one should use it for spiritual things. What one seeks to be is faithful, not progressive. I do not see how anyone here might object to this.

    2) When discerning God’s will on women in ministry, do not start with 1 Tim 2. This is again based on solid prot principles of Bible interpretation, that the more clear texts should be used to help understand the less clear texts and the so-called pastoral letters of Paul should therefore be exegeted AFTER all the other NT books, except perhaps Rev., for the reasons I gave above. Note he did not say that 1 Tim 2 should be ignored or dismissed as not being from Paul or anything like that, just that it should not be the first place to start the investigation.

    • alastairjroberts

      The principle of starting with the ‘more clear texts’ to understand less clear texts is widely abused by most parties who appeal to it. The problem is that texts aren’t generally objectively clear or unclear. Texts usually only become clear or unclear in terms of particular theological systems, hermeneutical principles, or cultural contexts.

      Of Galatians 3:28 and 1 Timothy 2, which is the ‘clearer’ text on the subject of women in ordained ministry? Contemporary egalitarians are probably historical outliers in thinking that Galatians 3:28 is the clearer one. What is ‘clear’ or not is highly relative and the notion that 1 Timothy 2 is unclear relative to the texts that egalitarians rely upon is something of a minority position in the history of exegesis.

      It is definitely a good idea to read Scripture cumulatively, starting with the beginning and working on. I suggest that if egalitarians spent more time tarrying in Genesis 1-2 especially, they would see that Paul’s argument was already made for him.

  • BruceSymons

    Denny, I wonder what you do with Steve Holmes (Shored Fragments)?
    “To be a ‘conservative Anglican’ might involve a desire to resist the elevation of women to the episcopate; a ‘conservative evangelical’ however, if words retain any meaning, should necessarily be actively committed to promoting the equal ministry of women and men at every level of church office.”
    Grace and peace

        • alastairjroberts

          It means that his argument may not apply so clearly to Denny’s context, although I think that there is a case to be made for it in the British context. That said, many who would identify as conservative evangelicals in the UK come from traditions that have always opposed women’s ordination. ‘Conservative evangelical’ is somewhat vague nomenclature that groups a few disparate movements together on the basis of certain family resemblances or loose affiliations. We should not presume that since women’s ordination is traditional for many strands of conservative evangelicalism that it is traditional for all forms of conservative evangelicalism.

          Incidentally, I know Steve Holmes as a former lecturer of mine.

          • Bruce Symons

            Alistair, I guess you are saying you disagree with Steve when he says:

            “In recent – very recent; I suspect the crucial turning point comes in the 1980s – years, there has been a strand of British evangelicalism that has been particularly unhappy with women teaching or exercising authority in the church, and that has tried to elevate that unhappiness into a defining point for the tradition; I do not doubt the sincerity of such people, but I do think honesty should compel them to acknowledge that their position is not ‘conservative’ but profoundly revisionist: it is a direct reversal of a settled and lasting evangelical tradition.”

            Is the ‘Holiness Movement’ ‘disparate’?

            • alastairjroberts

              Speaking as someone who has had deep personal connections to conservative independent Baptist evangelicalism in the UK throughout my life and a family connection that goes back generations, I find Steve Holmes’s account really rather problematic on a number of fronts.

              The key problem is the way that he defines ‘conservative’ relative to the term ‘evangelical’. Notice that he doesn’t really get into close discussion of the different strands of evangelicalism in its early and developing history and give a closely argued historical answer. Rather he just reaches for a dictionary definition of ‘conservative’ and points out that support for women in ministry has always been a family resemblance of the evangelical movement throughout its history. This is true enough, although it should be recognized that, like many family resemblances, there are and always have been many members of the evangelical ‘family’ who do not have this particular family resemblance.

              There has, of course, always been opposition to women preachers within evangelicalism too. However, the way that Steve defines evangelicalism has the effect of obscuring this. Just because a particular belief has always had strong forms within a movement when compared to groups outside of the movement does not mean that it is part of that movement’s ‘conservative’ position. I suggest that if we were to define ‘conservative’ in terms of something other than that which preserves characteristics the movement has always possessed strong forms of, we might get a very different picture. ‘Conservative’ could (and, I believe, usually should) rather be defined through a more discriminating and fine-grained analysis of the internal forms of a movement, rather than just treating the whole movement as a single set.

              Such analysis might observe that evangelicalism always possessed some sort of spectrum of positions and that those in support of such novelties as women in ministry were not the conservatives, but the radicals. Steve is right – evangelicalism has always had a vibrant radical tradition on this front – but the fact that the radicals have been around since the beginning doesn’t make those who follow after them conservatives.

              In fact, I would argue that evangelicalism has always been an inherently radical movement – tending towards egalitarianism (not just relative to gender), individualism, deinstitutionalization, and democratization. However, the ‘conservative’ wing of evangelicalism is probably defined less in terms of commitment to these natural impulses than in terms of resistance to them.

              The real conservatives of the evangelical movement, I would suggest, are those who, while identifying with evangelicalism in many respects, maintained the strongest commitment to the older confessional orthodoxies, traditions of biblical interpretation, forms of practice, etc. For instance, British evangelicalism has always had a Reformed evangelical tradition within it (which has grown over the last 50 years) that has drawn heavily upon a confessional Calvinist and Puritan tradition, while being leavened by the evangelical revivals and missionary movements. This group has tended to be vehemently opposed to women in ordained ministry along with other theological developments. I grew up in independent evangelical contexts with connections to organizations such as FIEC, which are opposed to women in ministry.

              Evangelicals are far from homogeneous or undifferentiated in the UK. Many British evangelicals would distinguish themselves sharply from forms of evangelicalism that arise from the Holiness tradition.

  • Andrew Chapman

    ‘But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else.’ Oh really? Let’s have a look: didaskein de gunaiki ouk epitrepoh is the relevant clause, and all the works occur frequently in the New Testament. I do not permit a woman to be teaching – this is not difficult at all – unless one is predisposed to disagree with it. One word in the same verse, authenteoh, occurs only here, and so there is room for discussion about how to translate the rest of the verse, but even here, in the light of verse 11 and the instruction for women to learn in all submission, it is hard to see how can one can get very far from a prohibition of women being in authority over men in the church. One word in the verse, of only indirect relevance, can hardly truthfully be described as ‘the key Greek words’.

  • Don Johnson

    It is true that authentein occurs nowhere else, perhaps the plural is a typo and it should be singular. Or he might be meaning some other word in 1 Tim 2.

    • alastairjroberts

      HM the Queen is NOT the ‘head’ of the Church of England. She is its ‘Supreme Governor’ and the ‘Defender of the Faith’. This language was actually chosen to ensure that it was not being claimed that the Monarch was the ‘head’ of the Church. Christ is the head of the Church.

    • Akash Charles

      Whatever the tradition, you cannot make any human the head of the church, I am sure egalitarians would love for it to be a woman, but personally I prefer Jesus

      • Akash Charles

        yeah it probably was, umm I do not understand why if they have women priests they have no women bishops??

        What is the difference??

        surely a vote for women in such positions would naturally mean a vote for women to all such positions

        why would someone vote for women priests and no for bishops??

        I need to educate myself in Bishops!!- I am pretty sure there is no Bishop in the bible

        • Akash Charles

          PS : I would not be surprised to find people who would prefer the head to be a woman than Jesus.

          I should not have labelled all egalitarians

          • Ferg Breen (@fergbreen)

            Akash, genuinely appreciate the apology and fully accept it! 🙂

            I ask the same questions you do re: why you’d vote for women priests and not bishops especially if you have the queen in such an esteemed position in the church. All bishops etc are subject to the queen as she has authority over them. Doesn’t sound very complementarian to me.

            Oh and when you say you wouldn’t be surprised to find people who would prefer the head to be a woman than Jesus – just look at the Catholic Church. They’ve done a pretty good job of that with Mary.

  • Don Johnson

    Hi Alastair,

    If you note from my comments on 1 Tim, they mostly apply to Galatians also, so I put all of Paul’s corpus just before Rev. in terms of difficulty in understanding and the need therefore to do it later when doing a comprehensive study of Scripture. To be specific both Gal and 1 Tim are easy to misunderstand, so I do not start with either.

    I agree that Scripture is a progressive revelation over time and therefore the place to start is with the Pentateuch/Torah and then the primary history of Israel (Gen – Kings). And the place to start with both of these is Gen and the place to start with Gen is Gen 1. On the first pericope in Gen (Gen 1:1 – 2:3) I think it is only POSSIBLE to read it in an egal manner, if one fails to do that, one is adding things to the text. So any non-egal reading must start in the second pericope starting with Gen 2:4. Unfortunately, there are so many myths about what it teaches, including what one learns when it is taught as a kid’s story, that one needs to unlearn quite a bit to see what is actually taught. I happen to have just taught on this and the other students were amazed at what they thought was there but was not and what was there but they had not seen.

    • alastairjroberts

      I disagree with your claim that Genesis 1 is only possible to read in an egalitarian manner. Genesis 1:27 still presents us with the man as the concentration point of human identity in its threefold parallelism, especially when read alongside Genesis 5:1-3. Created humanity is Adamic in the first instance, not Adamic-Evean. In its singular aspect, the human race is represented by the male.

      As for Genesis 2-3, the gender differentiation is very clear, on all sorts of levels. From Genesis 1-3, we can observe:

      1. Gender difference is integral to the human race as the image of God and not merely accidental. Gender difference has symbolic significance for humanity’s relationship to God, for relationships between humans, and in relation to the wider creation.

      2. While man and woman together are the image of God, it is the male who can sum up the human race in himself and who is the image of God par excellence.

      3. Adam is created before the woman.

      4. Adam is created to be a tiller of the earth; the woman is created to be the helper of Adam, to address the multifaceted problem of his aloneness.

      5. Adam is created from the dust, with God breathing the breath of life into his nose; the woman is created with flesh and bone taken from Adam’s side while he was in a deep sleep. The woman’s being derives from the man’s; the man’s being does not derive in the same way from the woman’s. Adam is ‘formed’; the woman is ‘built’.

      6. Adam is created outside of the Garden and prior to its creation; the woman is created within it. The woman has an especial relationship to the inner world of the Garden; Adam has an especial relationship with the earth outside of the Garden. Also, unlike the woman, Adam probably witnessed God’s Garden-forming activity as part of his preparation for his cultivation of the earth.

      7. Adam is given the priestly task of guarding and keeping the Garden directly by God, the woman is not.

      8. Adam is given the law concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the woman is not. Adam is given the charge of upholding this commandment. The commandment that God gives is addressed to Adam alone, but the woman, as Adam’s helper (whose vocation derives from Adam’s), is rightly taught that it applies to her too. However, she can be deceived because she is receiving all of her information second hand.

      9. Adam is given the task of naming, as a sign and preparation for his rule over the world, while the woman is not. Adam also names the woman twice (first according to her nature as ‘woman’, then by her personal name ‘Eve’), while she does not name him.

      10. The woman is formed as a helper for Adam, while Adam is not formed as a helper for the woman (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:9). Adam’s is the fundamental task, and the woman’s commission is defined relative to his task. The woman is created to do things that Adam cannot do.

      11. In Genesis 2:24, the establishment of marriage is especially associated with the action of the man.

      12. Adam and Eve sin in different manners. Eve is deceived, but Adam sins with a high hand.

      13. It is Adam that God holds ultimately responsible for the Fall, as the priest.

      14. The judgments upon Adam and the woman differ according to the original vocations and origins. The curses are not ‘egalitarian’, but highlight different areas of function.

      15. In the judgment upon the serpent and the naming of Eve we see that the parts played by man and woman in the drama of redemption that would follow would be different too.

      Much, much more could be said. This isn’t hard to flesh out. Suffice it to say that Paul’s reading of Genesis 1-3 is fairly well-supported in the original text.

  • Don Johnson

    You are correct about much much more could be said. The first thing to say is that the text needs to be engaged in the original Hebrew as much as one can do so, translations will involve their own interpretation in the act of translating.

    Just from what you wrote I can tell you are adding to the text in major ways, which will tilt the resulting understanding. As humans, all of us come to the text with previous understandings, we cannot help this, but all of us need to admit that we do this and can make mistakes in interpretation, as I claim you are doing in major ways alreadying in your short discussion and that these distortions to what the text really says are along the predicted lines of comp. interpretation. However, this is not the right forum to try to correct your multiple misunderstandings (as I see them). I am willing to engage you elsewhere however, perhaps your forum.

      • Shaun DuFault


        Thank you for your work on the explanation of Genesis here in this comment thread. It is quite excellent and worthy of reflection. I did not even notice that Adam was made outside the garden while Eve was made within, an interesting observation.

        There is much to be said, it is not just a hermeneutical sleight of hand but opposition to Biblical authority. Keep up the good fight.

        God Bless

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