In his new book, Surprised by Scripture, N.T. Wright sketches his case for the ordination of women. What is for some of us an already established set of observations on the basis of the Bible is for others not only contested by problematic. In fact, for some affirming the ordination of women is a way of denying the Bible (and tradition) while for others denying women is denying the Bible (but not much of the tradition).
His study is not extensive but does cover the bases, beginning with the important observation that Galatians 3:28 affirms the place of women alongside men in the family of God. The text is not about ministry. The key observation for Wright is that “male and female” is from Genesis 1:26-27 and Paul is here de-privileging male authority and power. But Paul has not denied difference or distinction: Jews remain Jews, Gentiles remain Gentiles, men stay men and women stay women, slave will remain slaves and free will be free. This is not to say Paul’s theology will not work to equalize all it can, but the point Wright is making is distinction remains.
There were women “leaders” in the early church, and Wright begins with Mary Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles; with Junia (not Junias); with Mary and Martha, a story he contends is not about two callings, one active, one passive, but about posturing as a student under Jesus in order to become a teacher (that’s what studenting was about).
1 Corinthians 14 on silence. They sat apart, men and women did. The women who were not as educated would not know and could disrupt a service and were told to wait until they got home to ask their questions. But women, 1 Cor has already shown, participated in public worship so this is not about total silence. Wright does not press the silence-while-learning and speaking-once-taught theme, which is clear for him in 1 Tim 2.
Head coverings in 1 Cor 11. Wright’s view is that this text is affirming a distinction between sexes and a distinction that is to be seen in their dress and appearance. In worship they are to be their true selves; this also means for Wright that women were not to copy men but to be women in their public ministries. This, of course, is an interesting, evocative and unresolved set of observations, but his point is that diversity of sexes is of value in the church.
Finally, 1 Tim 2, where he argues — as he did in his little commentary on the pastorals — that women are to learn in silence and, once taught, were more than capable of teaching. Paul is countering the possibility, esp in Ephesus, that educated women might take over and Paul does not that misunderstanding to arise (hence “usurp”). The problem of his teaching (Paul’s teaching) is the worrisomeness of some that women might take it too far and start acting like Ephesian, aggressive, usurping women (in their cultic worship practices). [I have a similar thesis in my The Blue Parakeet.]