A Quick Point About Women Bishops And The Deposit Of The Faith

A Quick Point About Women Bishops And The Deposit Of The Faith July 15, 2014


Did you hear the Church of England is going to ordain women bishops?

This is something the Catholic Church will not and indeed cannot do.

This is not the place for an examination of the many, many theological and canonical reasons that the Church has found in support of the male-only character of the priesthood.

Right now, I want to focus on one tiny subset of the whole tapestry, which is the fact that Jesus only appointed males to the apostleship. This argument is frequently used (including by me) in support for the male only priesthood and apostleship.

Former First Things editor Damon Linker has called it “extremely weak.” One person on Twitter surmised that the appointment of men to the apostleship could just be a coincidence (?!?!).

And on the surface, it can seem kind of silly: Jesus did lots of things, we can’t always know for sure what he meant by them, and so on and so forth. And how is “We’ve always done it this way” a decisive argument?

Here’s the thing: if you view it as, in and of itself, significant what Jesus did and signified, you are implicitly taking for granted one of the core claims of Christianity (if not the one on which all other claims depend), which is that it is a revealed religion.

According to Christianity, Christianity was revealed to men by God (in the Incarnation of his son Jesus Christ). According to Christianity, therefore, what is true, and what is in accordance to God’s will, is not, or not fundamentally, something which Christians figure out by abstract logical reasoning, but instead something that has been handed on down by God.

This is why Scripture describes the faith as “handed down once and for all” (Jude 1:3) and enjoins Christians to “hold fast to the Tradition” (2 Thess 2:15) of the Church, and this is why the Church describes herself as being the guardian of a “deposit” of the Faith.

It is crucial to understand this point (indeed, many Christians do not): small-t traditionalism, refusing to change for the sake of refusing to change, is valueless, yes, but Christianity believes itself to be a religion teaching truths revealed to men by God.

If you understand Christianity to be a revealed religion, then what Jesus did or didn’t do, even by itself, takes critical import, because we understand it to be part of a divine Revelation that is bequeathed from God to men for safekeeping.

This means that if Jesus Christ, who is God and the Word of God (Jn 1:1), taught something, whether in word or deed, certainly in the cases where the Church has always understood this teaching as being a teaching, as is clearly the case for the male priesthood, we have to understand it as binding even if we do not understand why. (And certainly the Bible is clear about the duty of following God even when we do not understand.) To reason otherwise is, in a subtle but real sense, to reduce Christianity to a man-made thing; to say “If we do not understand why it might be true, it cannot be true” is to implicitly deny that Christianity is or can be a revealed religion, coming down to us from a transcendent God who, by definition, knows better than we do. (I am not saying that all arguments for women in the priesthood do this, only this specific version of this specific argument.)

To be clear, this does not mean that Christians may not exercise critical thinking and may not theologize. But one reason why Christians sometimes describe theology as a “science” is precisely because theology takes itself to be an investigation into Divine Revelation which is taken as a given, a dataset to be investigated and understood, not a theory to be made up as we go along. It is Epistemology 101 to say that the great temptation of the scientist is to junk the empirical findings that don’t fit into her theory rather than the other way around.

In Augustine’s beautiful phrase, the Faith, at least in the Catholic understanding, is a “Beauty ever ancient and ever new”, which means that even though the truths of the faith are eternal, our understanding of them is never frozen in time. Indeed, as Bonaventure, whose feast day is today, decisively asserted, the Church grows and progresses in her understanding of Divine Revelation, which is why there is indeed development of doctrine, but this development can never contradict the revealed truths of faith.

Women in the priesthood is a good example: although this was never the doctrine of the Church, some Church Fathers have asserted that the reason why the Church cannot ordain women is because women are inferior (even as others asserted the equality of men and women); this view was decisively repudiated by the same Pope who infallibly declared that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood. We are always seeking to understand divine Revelation, but we will never do so if we deny that Revelation is, well, revealed.

The Orthodox are better at this than us, sometimes. Because of our Latin mindset, Catholicism always wants to find systematic answers, and always wants to have clear-cut reasons for everything. Again, this is good. But this can sometimes obscure the crucial distinction between the deposit of the faith and our understanding of it. In an interview (can’t find it right now), Met. Kallistos Ware, when asked about women in the priesthood, is quite candid about saying (I am paraphrasing) “We don’t really understand why we don’t ordain women, but that doesn’t mean we should”. Catholics always advance manifold reasons for their doctrines, and again, this is good, because God wants us to explore the deposit of the faith and try to understand it, even though we never will fully, but we should never lose sight of the fact that faith is a “given”.

Again, here I am not indicting all arguments against the Church’s traditional understanding of the priesthood. But I do want to stress this point about the revealed nature of Christianity, because I see a misunderstanding of it that leads people down dark paths.

Der Garten der Lüste – Christus, Adam und Eva” by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) – This file has been extracted from another image: File:The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch High Resolution 2.jpg.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’ve read this twice now, and I don’t actually see the argument against women in the priesthood. I’m not saying I don’t agree with it, I don’t actually see what the content is, just that you’ve indicated there is one. Insofar this is really about whether or not Christianity is a revealed religion, you’ve just kicked the can down the road, as we still have the problems of 1.) what are our sources of revelation (see, e.g, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral) 2.) are we as fallible humans going to be able to correctly glean that information and 3.) assuming we will err (we will!) in what direction should we err?

    Also, you’ve begged a more important question: is Christian ministry based on permission or mere witness? The idea that Christians may only do what they are explicitly told to do has appeal, especially, it seems, to the Catholics, but the boundaries of it seem fuzzy. I’m not sure I have clear permission from Jesus to have a family, hold down a job (see, e.g., Peter abandoning his family) or to incorporate the property of a church under a charter from the state. I’m not sure why the Church needs special permission to ordain women priests if it didn’t need it to form convents. I’m sure there is an answer, but it should be given.

    I’m reminded of the LDS church and the ordination of black men into the priesthood. The LDS has a tradition of continuing revelation, and the head of their church is professed to be a prophet who is in somewhat regular communication directly with God. They had a pretty ugly racist past, and also some less ugly and less racist history that the racists seemed to wash over. It’s not clear when the ban on black priests started, but it was lifted for good come 1978. The way that a Mormon friend paraphrases the timing on this revelation as “and God spake ‘well you never asked'”.

    Taking them at their word, it seems like small t tradition had a lot to do with how the Mormons perceived their large T traditions.

    • It is important to recognize that, for Catholics, the priesthood is not a job; it is a sacrament. Like all sacraments, it makes Christ present in a unique way, here in the very person who is ordained.

      The priest’s work follows from what the priest is: because he is conformed to Christ as head of the body, he does what Christ does. He gives Christ’s Body and Blood to the faithful, he forgives sins, he heals the sick, and he governs the Body. All sorts of trappings are added to aid both the recognition of the sacramental presence and the work: liturgy, canon law, distinctive clothing, etc.

      So the question is not whether women can do the stuff that men can do. The question is whether the unique kind of presence that Christ has in an ordained person requires a male.

      This is a question that cannot be answered through ordinary reason. We don’t need to ask Christ whether we should have families or jobs or other such things, because they are the sort of stuff he gave us minds to figure out. In the Gospels, he assumes such institutions as the family, the marketplace, and the state.

      But a sacrament is a matter of revelation. There is no way unaided reason can conclude that Christianity involves Holy Orders and it is of such-and-such a nature and has thus-and-so requirements. It is not a human institution that we make up or figure out on our own. It is a gift from God, his presence among us in a unique and supernatural manner. So in figuring out whether the Church can ordain women, it is a question not for reason first, but for authority. Once we have the answer, we can apply our reason to understanding the answer given. And we must acknowledge that our understanding may always be incomplete.

      • Roki, I can accept all of that, but it does not therefore follow that the Church is unable to ordain women, nor that they are proper in ordaining the men that they do. (Not to mention trickier things, like handling priests crossing over from rival traditions).

        • I guess my point is that the Church’s inability to ordain women is not a conclusion; it is a premise. It does not follow from anything other than revelation itself. The Catholic Church does not look for reasons not to ordain women; rather she starts with ordination being reserved to men and asks why it should be so.

          This is why the selection of the Twelve from among men only is significant. It is one manifestation of revelation.

          As for who among men ought to be ordained, that’s another question altogether. I simply recall that Jesus himself chose Judas Iscariot as well as Simon Peter and Saul of Tarsus.

          • But how does it follow from the revelation itself? If a Pope claimed that God spoke to him and told him that the priesthood would be X, Y and Z, and one of those items is “no women” then yeah, the only issue is whether you accept the revelation is genuine. But this, it seems, is a bit less clear cut

            This is why the selection of the Twelve from among men only is significant. It is one manifestation of revelation.

            Ipse dixit, and I can’t begin to understand why you and everyone else interprets it that way. I know many people who are as bewildered as I, and plenty of people who find it obvious. I also know people who find it obvious that the universal brotherhood in Christ means that you should shake hands with eachother instead of bowing. They too, see that as a revealed truth.

            All of which suggests to me that this could be about cultural assumptions instead of faithfulness to revelation. I’m willing to be shown otherwise, but I need a little more help than a dry fact and a doctrine.

          • If a Pope claimed that God spoke to him and told him that the priesthood would be X, Y and Z, and one of those items is “no women” then yeah, the only issue is whether you accept the revelation is genuine.

            That’s pretty much what did happen. From Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On the Ordination of Priests):

            Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

            As to whether the Pope has such authority, or whether the Catholic interpretation and practice of Christianity is correct, or whether cultural assumptions are overcoming faithfulness to revelation, well, that’s another matter altogether.

            And it seems to me that you get that. I read you as understanding that the Catholic Church (at least, so far as the official teaching goes,) understands the inability to ordain women to be part of the content of revelation.

            I understand that, from outside the Catholic Church, this seems like a point that needs to be argued towards, rather than assumed as a premise.

            This difference of assumptions is, I think, a source of misunderstanding. For those with a Catholic starting point, the fact that Christ chose only men is exactly what one would expect if, in fact, only men could be ordained. The fact supports the understanding of revelation. It is not probative, but it is supportive, especially given the context of Our Lord’s other behavior toward women. It helps Catholics to understand the revelation. So, when non-Catholics question the revelation, it is put forth as an argument.

            However, because it is not probative, and because it begins from what the questioners consider a conclusion, it is not terribly convincing for them.

            Meanwhile, both Catholics and questioners tend to miss the important fact that they are starting from very different sets of assumptions about the revelation and about the nature of the argument itself.

            Now, how to go about convincing a questioner that the Catholic position is indeed correct? I honestly have no idea. I accept the teaching solely on the basis of authority, and were I non-Catholic this teaching would likely be a stumbling block to my entering the Church.

          • I really appreciate this response and your patience as I try to grok the Catholic position on this point. I will bracket my objections to papal primacy and infallibility for the time being.

            PEG did not rest his argument here on revelation via Pope. Rather, its been implied to me that the revelation comes from the behavior of Christ in appointing 12 male Apostles. So, I think my objection to over-interpreting that event (how do we interpret Mary’s position among the Apostles, for example) still stands.

            Related to that, you mentioned ” the fact that Christ chose only men is exactly what one would expect if, in fact, only men could be ordained. The fact supports the understanding of revelation.” I don’t believe that can stand as a matter of logic, because while you can disprove a pattern/rule by a single inconsistency, you cannot prove the existence of a pattern or a rule in the reverse.

            What I’m looking for is, I dunno, some sort of interpretive pattern that explains Jesus’s lack of appointing female apostles as part of a practice of revealing truth. Christians tend to accept that Jesus taught in paradoxical parables because well, he did that all the time. So most of us on some level pay a lot of attention to his words: declarations and short narratives. So we all understand that revelation comes in that form. So to is there a pattern of miracle healing. What is it about the appointment of the apostles that leads Catholics confident to a conclusion?

          • I hope I’m able to help you sort out why Catholics (at least some of us) think the way we do. I’m far from an expert on Catholic theology of revelation, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to describe an interpretive pattern very accurately. But what the heck, it’s the internet so I’ll give it a go!

            From a Catholic perspective, revelation is not a set of propositions to which one gives assent. Rather, revelation is, in its primary meaning, Jesus Christ himself. He is the revelation of God to creation. Everything else – Scripture, Tradition, liturgies, etc. – all is derivative, and can only be called “revelation” in a secondary sense, insofar as it faithfully manifests the person of Jesus Christ.

            Now, I’d almost included “Sacraments” in that list of secondary revelations. But a Sacrament is exactly an encounter with Jesus Christ himself, so a Sacrament is itself primary revelation. It is Jesus Christ presenting himself to us, present with us to the end of the age, as he promised. It is an action of Christ.

            And I think this is what PEG, in his typically hyperbolic way, is trying to get at. The actions of Jesus are as important as his words, because Jesus is himself the revelation. We come to know the revelation of God in the way that we come to know a person: by listening to his words and observing his actions.

            Now, it seems obvious to me that this is not an interpretive framework that can be used from the outside. If you don’t believe in the guarantee of the Holy Spirit that the Church teaches infallibly in matters of faith and morals, then the whole argument is unsupportable hogwash. I mean, who’s to say that the Jesus I claim to know is any better than the Jesus you claim to know? How do we judge between our claims? So eventually, I don’t think we can bracket out infallibility for too long. I think it’s a real point of contention, and it has to be confronted. It may be the only thing I can point to as an “interpretive pattern”: that the Catholic Church consistently claims certainty about her knowledge of Christ, and claims the authority to declare definitively what is true or false about Christ.

            So it comes down to, “Jesus only ordained men, because only men can be ordained,” is the content of revelation because the Church says so; and the Church has the authority to say so because she has the guarantee of infallibility from the Holy Spirit. No guarantee? Then no authority, and no certainty about revelation.

            At least, such is my inexpert understanding. As I said, I haven’t studied this subject deeply, and it’s not much of a personal issue for me. I hope it’s clarifying. Thank you for a challenging and delightful discussion!

          • I’m not sure I can put my reaction in the form of an argument proper, so apologies for the jumble that is about to come.

            I don’t really buy that explanation. I think it works for a lot of hierarchical religions generally, and the idea of resonating faith appeals to me. But it rings false with the Catholicism I’ve observed and the Catholicism I’ve been sold by, among others, you and PEG.

            Catholicism doesn’t merely claim revelation on faith alone. It in fact rejects fideism. It treats theology not as a mystical experience but a scientific exploration of mysteries – chains of logic and causation.

            Which, I suppose, is fine. Catholicism is free to argue that it has an ancient and worthy claim, found in reason and in testimony to her authority. But I’d rather that claim be made nakedly. I prefer “Jesus spoke to me like a voice from heaven” to “I discerned Jesus’ message in these tea leaves.” It seems, bluntly, more honest.

          • There’s a difference between revelation and theology. Theology is, as you say, a scientific exploration of mysteries. (I love that phrase. Is it your own? May I steal it?)

            Revelation, however, is the mystery itself which we explore. As I said above, it is Jesus Christ, infinite God incarnate in finite human nature, crucified, risen, and now glorified. When Christ comes to you and says, “Come, follow me,” your response is not one of logical argumentation. It is either to drop your nets and follow him, or to make some excuse about burying dear old dad so you can flee. It is exactly the response of faith: to place your trust and your life in his hands, or to cling to it yourself.

            Now, this act of faith is not without reason, and comes nowhere near being contrary to reason. When Jesus called his disciples, they had heard his preaching and/or seen his miracles. When he calls us today, we hear his preaching through Scripture and the preaching of the Church, and we witness the works of Christians – perhaps including miracles. These experiences inform us about Christ, and give us reasons for our decision.

            But ultimately, it is a choice, a decision. It is not a logical conclusion that we reach. It is an act of faith to follow Christ; and therefore to accept the whole mystery of who and what he is, knowing that it is beyond our ability to fully understand.

            Theology does not arrive until the mystery is first accepted, and theology – I think in Augustine’s phrase – is faith seeking understanding. First faith in the mystery; then understanding through scientific exploration thereof.

            Hence the theological development of doctrine, as John Henry Newman expounded. It is not acceptance of new mysteries. Rather, it is deepened understanding of the same mystery we have placed our faith in from the beginning: Jesus, who is the incarnation of God, the resurrection of the dead, and our eternal communion in the divine life. Not a proposition, but a person. And the encounter with Christ is the starting point of all theological argument.

          • K.Chen – I know it’s a while since we’ve had this discussion, but David Mills pointed me to an excellent blog post by David Schutz which distinguishes between *reasons* for the teaching (essentially, that the practice of Jesus and the Apostles is normative) and *explanations* of the teaching (why is it so that Jesus and the Apostles acted this way? why is it so that we are bound by their actions?). This is essentially the distinction I was trying to make, but put much more clearly than I managed.

            Just in case you’re still interested.

  • captcrisis

    There is a stronger argument that only practicing Jews can be priests. Because Jesus picked only practicing Jews as apostles, for reasons that are a whole lot more obvious.

    • claycosse

      I guess this is true–if you disregard Acts and the entire rest of the (non-Gospels) New Testament.

    • The Anti-Monitor

      Except there was no Jewish-Christian distinction in the time of Jesus or the early Church. Followers of Christ largely were Jews, and Christianity as a distinct faith wasn’t demarcated until decades later.

      • Kathy K-m

        The truth is, nor should there be now. Christianity is merely a sect of Judaism. The schism occurred when the followers of the Christ decided to take a broader view, and include gentiles in their ministry.
        As a result, they have already convoluted a lot of the teachings, to accommodate this, from not requiring circumcision, to dietary laws, to celebrating Easter as “NOT Passover”, when it clearly was.
        So, since we’ve already gone to so much trouble to make the distinction, isn’t it a little weak to fall back on “Jesus says or Jesus did…”? It doesn’t seem to matter, when it’s inconvenient, but over women, we’re going to make it a big deal? This seems like hypocrisy, to me.

  • BTP

    Off-topic, perhaps: but have you noticed how 15th century artists never quite got the human form done perfectly, but they’d get every single leaf in a forest exactly right. Same thing with clothing- extremely high levels of detail in a cloak, for example (not so much in this example, though)

    • Shaun G. Lynch

      I’d never particularly noticed that, but yes! Very interesting observation.

  • Stephen Skinner

    I think the article is very good and brings up good points. I have read some of the postings and as always I learn something that is new or I forgot. I especially liked the comment from the Orthodox Met “We don’t really understand why we don’t ordain women, but that doesn’t mean we should”. I am actually more comfortable with that statement than I am with the typical Catholic answer based on some detailed answer that others may see is full of holes. Personally, I do not see any reason why priests can not be married and women can not be priest. I could quote scripture and examples that I think support my position (that are not original to me but I have gleemed from others) but then others will shot holes in them also quite easily I am sure. In the end it is a mystery one which I can live with even if I do not understand or agree with. However, the pirmary mystery to me is why so many so ardently still believe it.

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    I really enjoy your discussions of Church teaching, even if I don’t always find the explanations particularly satisfying. I very much appreciate that you are able to present Church teaching without editorializing or, worse, attacking those who might disagree with it. Please keep that up; there’s too much “liberal-bashing” on the Patheos Catholic Channel. It’s nice to get clear and informed teaching that simply presents the facts.

    In this case, the Orthodox metropolitan’s argument “We don’t really understand why we don’t ordain women, but that doesn’t mean we should” captures the essence of the Church’s “reasoning” on this subject. In other words, there is no reason! We block women from the priesthood because we’ve always blocked women from the priesthood because the gospel writers, for reasons that no one knows, happened not to mention any women among the disciples.

    That isn’t just weak argumentation. It is, as you note, non-argumentation! And, as such, it is entirely unsatisfactory.

    That said, and as I’ve noted elsewhere today in response to Fr. Longenecker’s blog, this is not “a hill I’m willing to die on.” I see absolutely no possibility of a change to this position in my lifetime, nor any positive value to be gained in challenging it. To all those who are, like me, active Catholics who are not happy about the Church’s position on the ordination of women: suck it up! There are plenty of other reforms to be promoted that have a real chance of being realized. Let’s not waste energy on something none of us is going to change in the foreseeable future.

  • jenny

    Not long ago it was a sin to participate in the sacraments of the Orthodox church…. now we want the unity of all Christians, as it is said in the Gospels….

    Maybe it is time to have women priests….

  • Kathy K-m

    If I might ask?
    The perception has always been that Jesus didn’t appoint women, based on the Bible as we know it, however, I think we can all agree, there has been much that his been lost/destroyed/left out, whether by accident or on purpose. (not for me to say)
    The (all male) Nicene Council decided it wanted The Church to go in a certain direction, and compiled the Book, accordingly.
    But isn’t that like asking slave owners if they think slaves should be free? “Hmm..well, we’ve consulted this text, that WE put together, and sorry, it says Nope.” Quelle surprize.
    If I may point out, the deity did to not make Eve from the head of a man, making her above him, nor from his ankle, to be below him. He/she/it made her from his (Hebrew) SIDE, his rib, which even at the most basic symbolic level, surely signifies equality?

    • Dagnabbit_42

      Kath K-m:

      You specify the Nicene Council; but I think what you have in mind — if the canonization of the New Testament is what you’re thinking about — is probably the Councils of Hippo and Carthage and the Synod of Rome and Pope Damasus I’s canon.

      But that’s nitpicking…sorry!

      To address your question more directly:

      I’m afraid that we don’t really agree, as you say, that “there has been much that has been lost/destroyed/left out, whether by accident or on purpose.”

      We actually have a lot of documentation – thousands of pages — from the early centuries of Christianity. The writings dating from that period fall roughly into five categories:

      (a.) Orthodox writings that eventually became part of the canon of Scripture;

      (b.) Orthodox writings that, while still being held to be entirely orthodox, were not accorded the highest level of importance which would lead to inclusion in the canon of Scripture but were instead accorded a secondary level of importance, namely, “Christians should read this for devotional purposes”;

      (c.) Writings by otherwise-orthodox persons who never intended to defy the authority of the Church but, in the absence of knowing what the Church actually taught on a topic (sometimes due to geographical isolation or because they received heretical instruction without knowing it, other times because the Church hadn’t formally decided it yet), they theologically speculated or guessed, and guessed incorrectly;

      (d.) Writings by otherwise-orthodox persons who at some point slipped into heresy, were informed that they were in heresy, and instead of changing their minds and repenting, stayed in heresy; and,

      (e.) Writings by non-Christians who co-opted the name of Jesus or one of Jesus’ friends or apostles, attached it to their own writings, and tried to pass it off as original, so as to convince Christians that they should really be something else; e.g. gnostics.

      Now as it happens, your own question really focuses mostly on Item (a.). You’re asking: How did the 27 books of the New Testament canon get in there, and is it plausible that some other pro-female-bishop book got left out?

      Well, the books which made it into the 27 book canon were those that were deemed “fit for reading in the liturgy.” Only the highest-authority and most respected writings could be associated with “the holy sacrifice, the Eucharist.” There were still other writings which were deemed entirely orthodox and useful for religious instruction (category (b.), above), but which didn’t quite make the cut, not because they were heterodox, but because they weren’t quite important and revered enough.

      How did they set the bar for being “important and revered enough?”

      1. They were known to be ancient, not later-invented works aping the style of the earlier works — and this usually meant they’d been read for centuries in the liturgies of whichever churches had them;

      2. They were either written by an apostle, or by a person
      sufficiently-closely associated with an apostle’s ministry that one
      could reliably conclude that the original MS had the imprimatur of an
      apostle, and probably his direct contribution;

      3. And, of course, they contained nothing which contradicted the Christian faith as received and understood by the men who were doing the canonizing. (This is actually a requirement for both categories (a.) and (b.), above.)

      Now, until around 367 AD (when Athanasius published his Easter Letter containing instructions as to which books to read in the liturgies), there was some variation about which books were “important and revered enough.”

      But that variation was pretty narrow. Basically it was: A few of what were later labeled books of type (b.) were read in the liturgy in a few churches; and in a few other churches, books which were later labeled books of type (a.) were not.

      Thus, things like Clement of Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians or the Didache and Hermas’ The Shepherd were sometimes read in the liturgy in some churches, even though they didn’t become part of the final 27-book canon.

      Or, things like Hebrews or Revelation were excluded in some churches, even though they eventually were included in the final 27-book canon.

      But when time came to canonize the New Testament, items in the other three categories (c.), (d.), and (e.) were not even considered plausible candidates for the liturgy.

      Yes, I know, my old college professor Bart Ehrman has made a pantload of money talking about “lost Christianities” represented by stuff like the Gospel of Thomas, but (I believe) that’s because he grew up a fundamentalist Protestant, and when he learned how implausible that kind of Christianity was, he responded by becoming an atheist instead of (as would have made more sense) a Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox. The Gospel of Thomas (a gnostic faux-gospel written well after the close of the 1st century) was never read in anybody’s liturgy; it was universally known to be spurious. Anyone could have stuck that in their canon, but only if they were consciously trying to move away from what Jesus taught his apostles.

      Kathy, for your supposal about women bishops to be correct, a few things would need to be true:

      First, there’d have to be some notion of women bishops in a document;

      Second, that document would need to treat the notion as orthodox;

      Third, the general Christian opinion about that document would be that it was orthodox, with a known and trustworthy provenance;

      Fourth, it would then be rejected when the New Testament was canonized;

      Fifth, those who thought it should be accepted would have raised a stink about its rejection, even if they ultimately failed to win the day;

      Sixth, Christianity would have to be a religion in which “what makes it into the Bible” is paramount, rather than one in which the Apostolic Tradition informs us both about the doctrines of Christianity AND about what belongs in the canon of Scripture.

      But none of these are true.

      Prisca and Maximilla, some early charismatics who hung out having ecstatic visions with Montanus, were probably the closest thing any of the Christian offshoot sects had to female bishops in the early years.

      Oh, and Christian widows often became consecrated deaconesses, although these were never regarded to be ordained clergy in the fashion of deacons. They were not considered to be the Christian fulfillment of the rabbinical and priestly and stewardly offices of Judaism, the way that the Christian bishop-offices were. They would need to be, for them to be considered “female clergy.”

      Also, in Judaism (unlike all the pagan nations around them) God was always perceived as a Father and thus only male priests made altar-sacrifices to Him. If Christianity had changed this, the change would have made a huge first-century uproar: It would have been considered a sign of polytheism or divine hermaphroditism. But no such controversy is recorded.

      No document among orthodox Christians suggests a competing norm of having female bishops. There is no record of a big argument and mutual name-calling over such a topic, as there were about other topics and certainly would have been if such a potentially-contentious idea had been in circulation. None of the “itemized lists of heresies” lists that idea. None of the early documents in (a.) or (b.), or even in (c.) or (d.), ever proposed it. There were priestesses among some of the gnostics, and some of those same gnostic groups produced faux-gospels (Category (e.)) but I’m not aware of them trying to use their faux-gospels to introduce female bishops. (Admittedly there might be one. I haven’t read them all, by a long shot.)

      Certainly nothing which was ever considered a plausible candidate for canonization would have suggested it. You can look, if you like, at the documents that just-barely-missed inclusion: That’d be The Didache and Clement’s letter to the Corinthians and maybe the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and The Shepherd by Hermas. Take a look. It just isn’t there.

      But there’s an even broader point to be made.

      Christianity is the religion which Jesus taught to His apostles, and they to their successors…whom, on the basis of their having learned the faith well, the apostles ordained to positions of leadership in the early Church (bishoprics).

      Eventually this produced a New Testament canon, which is a great blessing. But it need not have. If the bishops had never gotten together to set out an agreed-upon list of which 1st-century documents were good enough to read in the liturgy, and which were merely orthodox-but-used-only-for-private devotions, Christianity would still have been Christianity. It would have been that which the Apostles handed down from Christ to their own disciples: What Christians call “The Apostolic Tradition” or “The Apostolic Deposit of Faith.”

      So the permissibility of women bishops is not contingent on whether they get mentioned approvingly in the Bible. Granted, if they were, that would be proof that the apostles approved of the idea. (They aren’t.) But Christianity can still have an official teaching about a topic, even if it’s not directly spelled-out in the Bible.

      And it just so happens that the earliest witnesses who tell us what the Apostolic Tradition is — that is to say, what Christianity is — on this topic are unanimous. The idea of female bishops is unknown to them, even as a controversy to be fought.

      Sorry for the long post.