An Argument for the Ordination of Women
— and Why it Doesn’t Hold Water

E. L. Core

[Written in 1985, and just rediscovered, 2002.]

The Argument: “Jesus was a Man of His Times....”


“Put a Catholic in the White House, and the Pope will run the country.”

“The Jews are responsible for all our economic problems.”

Lies. Campaigns are waged with them, regimes run on them. How is it done? The principle is simple: Tell a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth. That is, people accept it as true.

The principle works just as well — perhaps even more effectively — if not lies but assumptions are used: Repeat an assumption often enough, and it becomes a fact.

Here’s a popular argument that seems to run on this principle:

Jesus was a man of His times. His times were male-dominated. Because of the “patriarchal” mentality of His times, Jesus couldn’t choose a woman apostle. But ours is the time of liberation and equality. We know that men and women are equal. Let’s ordain women now. We shouldn’t let ourselves be bound by another era’s prejudices.

None of those statements are lies. But are any of them assumptions? Or based on assumptions? And if any are, can we chalk up the whole thing as another example of “repeat it often enough and it becomes the truth”?

The Assumptions Underlying the Argument

Indeed, this kind of argument contains at least three assumptions:

Of course, an argument is not necessarily invalid because it rests on assumptions. But if it does, the strength of the argument depends on the strength of the assumptions. If the assumptions are good, the argument has a good foundation. If the assumptions are shaky, the argument collapses.

Let’s examine these three assumptions to see whether they are good or bad, strong or shaky.

The First Assumption:
Jesus’ Appointment of All Male Apostles
was Entirely the Result of His Being a Man of His Times

Let us take for granted that Jesus was, indeed, a man of His times. But how much a man of His times? To what extent, or in what degree? Broadly speaking, only two answers are possible: entirely, or not entirely.

The first answer is unacceptable to Christians because it is blasphemy and heresy — objections unheard of nowadays, but hear me out. It is blasphemy because, while it asserts (as Christians always have asserted) the humanity of Christ, it denies His divinity. It is heresy because it asserts that Christ had only one will, a human will, rather than two wills, a human will wholly subservient to the divine.

I am not proposing a merely dogmatic response. Both the divinity of Christ and the reality of his human will acting in accord with the divine will are well attested in the Gospels. And these Gospels are the only witnesses we now have to what Jesus did and said. Some people think that convoluted speculations twenty centuries after the fact are more likely to be true than the claims of eye-witnesses and the writings of near contemporaries. But imagine the situation reversed. Do you think that someone writing in the year 3985 is going to know what you “really” did and said, not the people you are now living and working with? Do you think that those who will live in 3985, and perhaps on the other side of the world, are going to understand you better than those who will live some miles away a few decades from now?1

Christ Himself proclaimed His divinity, both subtly and blatantly, in word and in act. He not only cured the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) but forgave his sins as well. And “who can forgive sins but God?” (2:7).2 After He said “before Abraham ever was, I Am” (John 8:58), the Jews tried to stone Him because Christ “made himself God’s equal” (5:18). And to the Sanhedrin, Jesus said the words that sealed His doom: “from this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). “He has blasphemed,” said the high priest (26:65), by claiming equality with God.

Time after time, Jesus said He was doing not His own will but that of God His Father. He said “my aim is to do not my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30, cf. 6:38). And He prayed, and taught us to pray, “Father,... your will be done” (Matthew 26:42, cf. 6:10). And He said “if I am not doing my Father’s work, there is no need to believe me” (John 10:37). This last point is especially well taken; we might reflect on it more than we do.

Since Jesus is both truly God and truly Man,3 and since His words and deeds were what His Father commanded, we must conclude that His choice of only male apostles could not have been entirely the result of cultural prejudice. Any other conclusion is a denial of the Incarnation of the Word. Christians are left, then, with the other answer: Jesus’ choice of only male apostles was not entirely the result of cultural prejudice. We may rightly ask next, If not entirely then to what degree? Large or small? In other words, How much did Jesus conform to the “patriarchal” mentality of His time?

The answer, much bandied about in the twentieth century, is that Jesus was a nonconformist. His treatment of women was sometimes shocking to the men of his time. Men were not allowed (so I am told) to speak to a married woman in public. But St. John records with subtle precision that remarkable encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The disciples “were surprised to find him speaking to a woman, though none of them asked” Him why He was doing so (John 4:27). As we are so often told, women were second-class citizens in first-century Palestine, wives mere chattels of their husbands. Yet — accent on the yet — women were among Jesus’ friends and companions during His ministry (Luke 8:1-3); besides His beloved John, only women stood beneath the Cross (John 19:25); and Jesus greeted women first after His Resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10).

Jesus’ treatment of women stands thus in marked contrast to the general treatment of women by the men of His time. Jesus’ treatment of women also stands in marked contrast to His choice of all male apostles. Women were with Him on the road, on Calvary, and in the garden on the morning of the first day of the week. But the apostles He took with Him to the upper room for their last supper together (John 13-17), to prepare them for the harrowing of the next few days, and to teach them the intimacy of His relationship with His Father and the Holy Spirit — those apostles were all males.

In every respect, Jesus flouted the dictates of His cultural mentality in dealing with women. So, to assert that Jesus bowed to cultural prejudice when choosing only male apostles ignores all the evidence. What was He doing then? He was doing the will of the One who sent him, the work of His Father (John 5:30, 6:38).

The Second Assumption:
The Equality of Men and Women Means
That Men and Women Are Interchangeable

Men and women are equal. You’ll get no quarrel from me about that.

But what do we mean when we say they’re equal? Many people think “equal” means “interchangeable”; that the physiological differences between men and women are the only real differences. And they say those differences are superficial and, therefore, inconsequential. They seem to think that the differences between men and women would vanish if from infancy we all kept our hair the same length and wore gunnysacks from neck to ankle.

But these people (male and female) fail to ask a simple question: if men and women are by nature interchangeable, how did gender roles ever arise? How could anyone get the idea that men should be the protectors and providers (and priests), women the nurturers and caretakers? Or, I should say, how could everyone get the idea that men and women should have different roles? For gender roles are universal. Gender roles everywhere the same? No. Gender roles everywhere? Yes. In all times, in all places, every culture has believed that men have one function in the home and in society and that women have another; that men and women are not interchangeable.

Am I stealthily backing away from my earlier agreement that men and women are equal? No. Men and women are equal in dignity, value and importance. Which doesn’t mean that they are (or should be) equal in capabilities, responsibilities and function. The first kind of equality does not imply the second. Neither does it depend upon the second for validity. (Many people have thought otherwise on this last point, but their mistake is no excuse for us to make a different mistake.) Insisting upon the first kind of equality and not upon the second is eminently Christian: it means we acknowledge that we are equal as persons not as functions, that who we are before God is more significant than what we do. Isn’t this what Holy Peter had in mind when he wrote that “husbands must always treat their wives with consideration in their life together, respecting a woman as one who, though she may be the weaker partner, is equally an heir to the life of grace” (1 Peter 3:7)?

But gender roles, many people say, are forced on us by society, not by nature. From birth, girls and boys are treated differently and expected to act differently. If we would stop all this gender-role indoctrination, they say, we would find that gender roles are our own concoction.

That kind of reply is evasive. My question then becomes, If gender roles are indoctrinated, why have they been indoctrinated always and everywhere? But the reply is not merely evasive; it is also unrealistic. The idea that gender roles are created by society, not by nature, could have arisen and been sustained only among people whose association with animals is severely limited. If the only animals you observe closely over a long time are pigeons and smaller birds adapted to life among humans, and cockroaches — well, you’re likely to get warped ideas about gender roles not being natural.

For gender roles are common among animal species. A day on the farm would acquaint you with reality. The rooster, not the hen, would wake you in the morning; the hen, not the rooster, would be sitting on the clutch. If you strayed in the wrong pasture, the bull would be more likely to chase you around the field than would the cow, even if she had horns. The cardinal singing his heart out would be the male, and the female would always be approaching the feeder first.

You needn’t go to the farm, really. Watch the fish in your neighbor’s aquarium. The male swordtail is the bully, the female the one who usually hides in the plants. The male bettas fight ruthlessly, and they build and tend the nest; the females usually get along without hassles, and they have nothing to do with raising the family. And the male seahorse, never the female, carries the young.

You needn’t look into your neighbor’s aquarium, even. Just ask anyone who owns a cat. It’s not hard to tell the difference between a tom and a female. And you don’t need to make a physical examination.

Like it or not, gender roles are commonplace among animals. Commonplace, too, are gender differences in temperament and predilection. But no Parliament of Fowls decreed that the hen may not announce the dawn. And bovine societies did not decide that the bulls must live up to a macho image. The fish may be in schools, but they didn’t get their gender roles by indoctrination. They came naturally. And it hasn’t been proven otherwise for humans.4

The Third Assumption:
The Attitudes Of Our Culture
Are Morally Superior to Those of Jesus’ Culture

Modern photography has afforded us a view of our world that our ancestors might have thought magical. We can see with astonishing clarity what the world looked like ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years ago, in vivid color or sharp black-and-white. And we can see what we ourselves looked like at a younger age, perhaps an age younger than we can remember.

Who of us hasn’t seen a picture of himself as a small child and marvelled at how much he still looks like that kid no matter what changes the years have brought in size and shape? And how many of us, say twenty-five or older, have cringed at the sight of our picture in the high-school yearbook? And how silly will we look to ourselves, and our children, twenty years from now when we get out the scrap book (or homemade videos)?

This feeling of strangeness brought on by the backward glance, this tendency to look back — even at ourselves — and laugh at the way people used to dress or style their hair, has a counterpart in the world of ideas. It has been called (by Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis) “chronological snobbery”.5 This peculiar and widespread prejudice — that’s what it is, a prejudice — says that an idea can be considered erroneous merely because it has gone out of fashion. It doesn’t matter to the chronological snobs whether the idea was ever disproved. It doesn’t matter, either, that chronological snobbery is quite illogical. All that matters is that the idea in question is “old” and therefore, somehow, wrong. Just like crew cuts are now “old” and therefore, somehow, silly.

The third assumption, that our culture is morally superior to Jesus’ culture concerning gender roles, is based upon chronological snobbery. If you challenge the “Jesus was a man of His times” argument, you’re likely to hear: Sure, they thought men and women have different places in society; but that was twenty centuries ago! And the statement is usually made with an air of strident finality: it was twenty centuries ago; need we say any more?

Now, I’m not saying that the opposite of chronological snobbery is right, that because an idea is old it is therefore true. Age, or lack of it, is irrelevant.

Ideas do not run out of truth when they go out of style. People who are merely trying to be logical will keep this in mind. But Christians must also heed the Apostle’s admonition: “Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind. This is the only way to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do” (Romans 12:2).6


We are now in a better position to look at the argument again:

Jesus was a man of His times. His times were male-dominated. Because of the patriarchal mentality of His times, Jesus couldn’t choose a woman apostle (Assumption 1). But ours is the time of liberation and equality. We know that men and women are equal (Assumption 2). Let’s ordain women now. We shouldn’t let ourselves be bound by another era’s prejudices (Assumption 3).

Depending upon the degree to which it is asserted, the first assumption is merely contrary to all the evidence or is outright blasphemous and heretical. The second assumption ignores the universal testimony of mankind and cannot be maintained without denying reality. The third assumption is based upon an illogical prejudice.

Therefore, this argument does not have a weak foundation. It has no foundation at all.


1 See C. S. Lewis’s “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” in Christian Reflections.

2 Biblical quotations are from The Jerusalem Bible.

3 For Biblical testimony outside the Gospels, see especially 1 Corinthians 2:8, 2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15, and Hebrews 1:3. For early extra-canonical testimony, see the wonderful Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, especially Ephesians 7:2, Magnesians 7:1, Smyrnaeans 1:1-2, and Polycarp 3:2.

4 For a better treatment of this subject, see Sheldon Vanauken’s Under the Mercy, Chapter VIII.

5 See Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, Chapter XIII.

6 See also 1 Corinthians 2:12-16 and Ephesians 4:22-24.

© ELC 1985

Webpage © 2002 ELC
Lane Core Jr. (
Created January 15, 2002; not revised.