Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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Clarity & Charity

reprinted from the Winter 2004 edition of Essentials


   The question of women's ordination to the episcopate will once again engage the hearts and minds of General Synod members in October this year. Considerable work has been done since last General Synod in order to ensure informed debate especially the provision of alternative Episcopal oversight. What are the issues for evangelicals in this debate? Not only is this a very important issue as members of the Australian Church but for relationships amongst evangelicals. The ordination of women priests divided us in the past. How we respond to this debate will be another challenge for us to respond in ways that adorn the gospel.  Peter Brain is Bishop of Armidale
   Let me share my thoughts in the hope that they will help us respond in ways that will neither compromise our conscience, convictions or character as Christians who want to honour Scripture, God, our church and our brother and sister Christians.  
   Firstly I must declare my hand as one who believes that the scriptures do not support women's ordination as ministers in charge of parishes. (I do support the ordination of women priests whose primary ministry is amongst women). My principal reasons are:-  
  • The leadership argument that what happens in church should not overthrow what should happen in the home
  • Given the way St. Paul so clearly recognises and values the ministry of women who are prominent on his ministry teams I remain surprised that he doesn't endorse women for positions of teaching and leadership. He could have since women were prominent in the life and leadership of the church (think of Priscilla, Lydia and the women of Romans 16) and was not backward in running against cultural norms (eg. in the exaltation of humility and the equality of women) when the gospel called for change.
  • Pragmatically, and with the wisdom of hindsight, it seems to me that ordination of women means men will leave the leading to our sisters.
   Having declared my own hand I am very conscious that women's ordination is not an essential gospel issue or one that I would go to the wall for. I am very conscious that there are many evangelical scholars, whose books and example I cherish, with whom I am at one on all the essentials but with whom I differ on this issue. This alerts me to the fact that the issue of women's ordination, whether to the office of presbyter or bishop should not divide us nor cause us to question each others integrity as Bible believing, evangelicals/Christians.  
   My suggestion is that we should treat women's ordination in the same way that we have viewed baptism. Mature Christians have never insisted on one mode (infant or believer's) or one means (sprinkling or full immersion) of baptism. We have considered that the core issue, the new birth and conversion which baptism looks forward or back to and prays for or celebrates is the key. Whilst proper to hold and even defend our view from Scripture we do not disfellowship or discredit brothers and sisters who hold a view contrary to ours.  
   We already hold in tension views about important issues that in good faith we differ on. In each case we are grappling with our interpretation of Scripture which we are seeking to take seriously. In terms of creation and the end times different positions are held strongly, which can find support from Scripture. The same can be said for the two principal forms of church government - Episcopal (one elder) or Presbyterian (a bunch of elders). In each case, as with baptism, the key issue is clear and held by all – God is the maker of Heaven and Earth, and Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.  
   Church leaders should be godly, converted people, pastorally gifted, trained and proven, who in doctrine, moral and ethics are living in obedience to New Testament patterns. None should be ordained if these characteristics are not seen. If this position is adopted a number of practical pastoral consequences follow:-  
  • Fellow ministers will want to and be able to support each other's ministry and relate to each other as equals and with respect for one another.
  • One's stance on the ordination of women should be respected and not made a controlling question of fitness to work in a parish or diocese.
  • Should a congregation or a presbyter in all good conscience not feel able to receive the Episcopal ministry of a woman an alternative arrangement should be made available.
   If the support and respect position is adopted and is demonstrated in practice one would hope that this would mean the controlling issue of fitness would not become an enshrined principle that would override the safeguard envisaged in the proposed canon that "no member of clergy or lay member of this church shall suffer any discrimination or prejudice, because he or she in conscience accepts bishops, priests or deacons who are women, or does not so accept them." (8)  
   The proposed ordinance in taking the conscience of those against women in the episcopate seriously has made provision for alternative Episcopal oversight a requirement for Bishops whose Dioceses have a woman Diocesan or assistant. There will, I expect, be those who will oppose this provision on the grounds that if a woman is to be a Bishop she should be a "real Bishop" with the same responsibilities as a male Bishop. Others will be pragmatic, no doubt, and vote for it to ensure the success of the proposal.  
   For myself I feel that this provision is necessary in that it becomes a clear demonstration that women's ordination does not become the defining issue of fitness for licensing in a Diocese. There are still many from different ends of the churchmanship spectrum who, as a matter of good conscience, could not receive the Episcopal ministry of a woman.  
   My own position, unless otherwise persuaded, will be to vote against the canon. I trust my position (based on my understanding of Scripture) will not cause me to act in ways toward those who support and who might be episcopally ordained that would be contrary to the principles of fellowship outlined in Scripture.  
   Other issues, of both doctrine and ethics that are much clearer in Scripture, would cause me not to be able to fellowship with others within and outside our denomination. Whilst this causes me a heavy heart and brings no joy it would be necessary where clear Biblical teaching is threatened.  
   The issue of women's ordination provides a struggle because of our desire to honour Scripture and each other. Since I'm still persuaded that the Biblical evidence precludes women in general leadership I cannot support the proposal. Yet wanting to honour brothers and sisters (including those who whilst maintaining the authority of Scripture support women's ordination along with orthodox Christian women in Australia and overseas who are ordained) I cannot treat the issue as the defining issue. Some will possibly see me as confused and others compromising. I trust that neither is the case.  
   I offer these thoughts in the hope that it will help us to pray together for the debate(s) at October's General Synod and with the exhortation that our differences on this issue will not divide us and cause us to define each other's loyalty to evangelicalism by our response to this issue. To do so would I believe cause us  
  • to run against Scripture in terms of valuing the ministry of men and women
  • to lock ourselves out of ministry opportunities
  • to discourage women and negate our efforts to encourage those who have been ordained and
  • to be less effective in contending for the defining issues of doctrine and ethics that confront us.



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