The Role of Women in the Church

by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse

The worst reason to do anything is in reaction to fear because it causes overreaction. In the present day Church there is such a fear of the radical feminist movement with its attendant push for the ordination of women that some people are afraid for women to have any part in worship. They are right to oppose the ordination of women to the holy office of priests simply because God is opposed to it and declares as much in the Scriptures. It is outside the scope of this paper to discuss the reasons for the exclusion of women from the priesthood, but suffice it to say that nothing that is said in this paper is meant to imply or prepare the way for the ordination of women as priests. If we follow the rule of Scripture in the Church, there is no need to be afraid, that is, to determine our practices in worship out of fear. We should never give up legitimate things that God leaves us free to do simply because we are afraid that doing them will cause us to stumble into doing illegitimate things. This, after all, was the beginning of sin in the Garden of Eden. Eve should not have spoken to the serpent at all, of course, but her sinful response was that God had not only told them not to eat the fruit, but they were not even to touch it, which God never said. If one prohibits what God allows, he will eventually allow what God forbids.

Yet in some churches it is thought that the only proper thing for women to do in worship is to sit silently while men, or at least males – immature as they may be – do everything else. There are no females in the procession, no female reads the lessons, and there are no females assisting the priest in the Eucharist. But in examining what Scripture teaches about the role of women in worship a different conclusion is reached.

The Image of God

The first matter of importance is that God creates male and female in his image. They are both image bearers of God. We call God “Father”, and we refer to him as “him”, but we must remember that though God is predominantly, though not exclusively, referred to in the Bible as masculine, both the man and the woman are image bearers of God. The woman is not a second-class image of God. Femaleness is part of the image of God; a necessary part.

When God gives the mandates of labor, marriage, sabbath, procreation, etc., to Adam he gives them equally to Eve. These commandments cannot be obeyed without her full participation. Therefore the command to be fruitful and subdue the earth, whatever that means – and the meaning is very broad – cannot be accomplished without the woman’s full participation. Her role may be different from the man’s, but the goal of bringing everything into subjection to God cannot be accomplished without the woman’s full and hearty participation.

Creation and Worship

Now what does this have to do with the worship of the Church?

First of all, the Church is a microcosm of the world. The worship of the Church is a picture of what life should be, where everything is truly under the dominion of God. The only way to determine what that should look like is to consider carefully Genesis 1-3 since in the beginning God made everything the way it should be. Though Adam and Eve ruined it, and therefore the way things are cannot be the standard for our worship, we can discern God’s standard by considering his intentions from the original creation. We all know the world is not what God originally intended it to be, but in worship all is set right. Worship is the Garden of Eden restored. The liturgy disciplines us to think Christ’s thoughts after him, the lectionary causes us to immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, and regular Holy Communion requires us to come to Jesus for help whether we feel like it or not. The Church reorders our lives by calendar, habit, and desire. Worship in the Church is not something different and distinct from real life, but is itself real life. If we are to enjoy the benefits of God’s salvation in our individual lives, we must conform our lives to the rhythms God has established to be celebrated in his Church.

Before sin entered the picture Adam and Eve had a continual union and communion with God as they went about the business of fulfilling God’s commands. That is, their whole life was worship, because it was dedicated to God and for his glory, and there was no impediment caused by sin. That general worship of God, however, would not have been enough, and therefore God established the Sabbath cycle of six days of work and one day of rest. That one day of rest signified their utter dependence on God, and that to bring everything into willing obedience to God in the other six days they had to pattern their lives after his. General worship of God, i.e., obedient work, leads to the special worship of God, i.e., Sabbath rest and instruction in the pattern of God’s life, and in turn special worship leads to general worship as God’s people are refreshed by Sabbath rest for renewed labors, and are also instructed in regard to their weekly labor.

What God expects of all the inhabitants of the world certainly ought to be true of the Church. If God expects Eve to assist Adam, priest of the world, in subduing all creation to him, then we ought to expect that design to be reflected in worship. Since worship is not the private act of a small group behind closed doors, but rather the owners of the world thanking God for giving them everything in Christ, and women are part owners, women ought to have a major part in the worship. The role of women as image-bearers and dominion-ministers is lost unless women participate in worship. Since worship is a microcosm of the world, and since God commands women to help men subdue the world, worship ought to include women in a way analogous to God’s expectations of their participation in the world.

Let us take the procession that begins worship as an example. The cross at the front symbolizes Christ going at the head of his Church to claim the whole world as his own. That is, the cross represents Christ, and the people in the procession represent the different categories of members of the body of Christ – lay and clergy. Christ comes in, making his creational claim of ownership, but he does not come in alone. Rather he conquers the world through the ministry of his Church, which is represented by the other people in the procession. Christ reestablishes the creation order through his Church, and both creation and the restoration of creation by the Church require the participation of females. St. Paul has this in mind when he says to the Church in Rome that God will shortly crush Satan under their feet (Ro. 16:20). This is not said exclusively to the men in the Church, but to the whole Church, especially since it is a reference to God’s promise to Eve.

The Pre-eminence of the Celebrant

The only one who properly serves at the altar is the priest (or bishop). Anyone else who helps only does so by the permission of the celebrant, including other ordained priests who may be present. They may come to the altar only by concession of the celebrant, but not as a right. That is, the only one who serves at the altar is the celebrant, and all the rest are his slaves. For this reason some celebrations of the Eucharist designate ordained priests who assist as “deacons”. Though they are ordained presbyters, they are called deacons, since they are the servants of the priest or bishop who is the celebrant. There are no other servers at the altar though there may be other people doing things at the behest of the priest during the celebration.

So the idea that “anyone who is in front” must be exercising authority needs to be scrapped. The fact is that those who are “in front” represent the whole work of Christ to make all things new, to show that the world cannot be renovated without the participation of male and female acting under the authority of the male priesthood.

Even if there are only male acolytes, they are not exercising authority. They are servants of the celebrant, and the only criteria in selecting is their willingness to help and seriousness in helping. The fact that they are males is of no consequence. They may as well be hippos, except that God requires that those who serve him in worship be members of his Church, which doesn’t include hippos.

The Role of Acolytes

It should be noted as a matter of the first importance that there are no provisions or regulations in the Bible for acolytes (helpers) or lay-readers. By lay-reader I do not mean one who is licensed by the bishop to read the service or preach, but only a person who may be asked occasionally to read a Scripture lesson. The only biblical rule that applies to acolytes or lay-readers is that all things should be done decently and in order. The rule of St. Paul that no woman should exercise authority over men has to do with teaching and the celebration of the sacraments, but since acolytes and lay-readers do neither, that rule cannot apply to them.

The role and function of acolytes is entirely a creation of the Church to maintain good order according to the general principles of the Scriptures. The acolyte is not filling any office set forth in Scripture, Levitical or otherwise, unless one considers the duties and functions of a slave as an office. The acolyte and lay-reader are strictly speaking the slaves of the priest. They serve only at his bidding, and do only such things as he instructs. Since the acolyte is an invention of the Church, it is the Church’s right to determine who will serve as an acolyte as long as no principle of Scripture is violated. For instance, no one who was a notorious liar, thief, or murderer could be an acolyte.

When considering the principles of Scripture we must determine whether they are special principles or general principles. Special principles are those that apply to the ordained clergy, and the general principles are those that apply to everyone. Because of its unbiblical democratic character, modern Protestantism has tended to deny that there are any special principles for the clergy, and instead has claimed that everything in the Bible applies to everyone. Though the Church has always held to the priesthood of all believers, the Church has also held that ordination imparts an authority not possessed by the lay members. It would be wrong then, to pit one principle against the other since both have been held simultaneously by the Church.

According to the special principles of the Bible, only the ordained male priest may celebrate holy communion, and according to the general principles of the Bible the ordained male priest may invite anyone in the congregation to be his slave to help him in that celebration. The function of acolytes must not be equated with the Levitical office. The whole nation of Israel was called to be priests to God, but to relieve them of that duty the Levites were designated as the priestly family to serve in the place of the rest of the nation. The Levites were specially ordained by God to serve in the temple, which cannot be said of acolytes, and therefore the rules for the Levites have no application to acolytes.

Inquiry into the subject of the gender of acolytes cannot begin in the worship of either the Old Testament or New Testament since there is no comparable office in either. The place to begin any inquiry into this subject is Genesis 1-3 since it is there that God creates and declares how male and female should relate to each other in bringing everything into subjection to God. We will follow, then, not the special principles that apply to the ordained officers, but the general principles that apply to the participation of all God’s people in worship.

Royal Priesthood and Servant Priesthood

As has been mentioned, the priesthood of all believers is a very important biblical theme. The creation mandates cannot be fulfilled by a small cadre of professional clergy called priests, though they may have a very important part in instructing and helping the rest of the people of God. God’s purposes in creation can only be accomplished by all of God’s people filling their divinely appointed places. Whatever God calls a person to do becomes his sacred vocation whether that be garbage-collecting, school-teaching, or Gospel-preaching. All are honorable and therefore full-time service to God. This is what is meant by the phrase “priesthood of all believers.”

Now if all believers are priests in that general sense, then women are certainly priests. If the creation mandates cannot be fulfilled without the participation and cooperation of all Christians, men and women alike, and if the Church at worship is a microcosm of the restoration of all things by Christ to their original intent, then the symbolism is incomplete if women do not fill roles appropriate to them. It is certainly inappropriate, as has already been stated, for a woman to be the celebrant or preacher, but it is entirely appropriate for women to assist the celebrant.

The Bible speaks of the whole nation of Israel as a peculiar people – kings and priests unto God – and that language is taken up in the New Testament to refer to the members of the Church. Another way to say this is that the members of the Church constitute a royal priesthood. The ordained clergy are the servants of the royal priesthood, and thus could be called the servant priesthood. Our Lord Jesus said that he did not come to be served but to serve, and to lay down his life. In turn, he said that those who would minister in his name to the Church must be the servant of all.

One application of this truth is in the area of dress. In the Anglican tradition ministers wear distinctive dress to designate that they are servants. They wear black or gray shirts with collars reminiscent of slave collars. That garb is not a “power shirt” but a slave shirt, and the minister wears the same drab shirt day in and day out.

But the royal priests get to wear clothing of many varied shapes and colors because they are the kings and queens in God’s kingdom. When they come to perform their special task of worshipping God they should be arrayed in their finest not only to honor God, their King, but also in recognition of who they are. Christ has raised them from the dull bondage to sin where Satan gives them only rags to wear, and they have now been clothed in the shining righteousness of Christ. They are to be adorned as the bride preparing for the bridegroom.

When it comes to worship on Sunday the ordained servant priest also functions as the special representative of Christ to preach authoritatively and to celebrate the holy Eucharist, and therefore he wears different clothing that shows that difference. Through the centuries the Church has also held that for things to be done decently and in order all who are in the procession and help the ordained priest should be vested so as not to draw attention to the individual person, but instead to that person’s function in the worship. The same thing is indicated by the person’s place in the procession. The acolytes go first, the lay-reader or chalice bearer comes next, the deacons next, then the presbyters, and finally the bishops. The last person in the procession is the celebrant for the Eucharist.

One significant part of this is that the first acolyte in the procession is the crucifer. Though the ordained clergy are higher in rank than the acolyte, it is entirely appropriate for them to bow when the cross passes them if they are in a position to do so. They are not honoring the acolyte but rather Christ, who is symbolized by the cross. It is the acolyte’s great honor to bear the symbol of Christ’s presence into the sanctuary and thereby claim Christ’s ownership of the whole world.

Now none of these functions or traditions is explicitly set out in Scripture. There are no requirements for crucifers, and there are neither instructions about what a crucifer does, nor directions about what everyone else does when the crucifer passes. There are only requirements and instructions that apply to deacons, presbyters, and bishops, not to anyone who simply assists the ordained clergy.

In conclusion, God created women in his image and gave them equally with men the responsibility to bring the whole world under the dominion of Christ. Since the Church is both the picture of the fulfillment of that dominion mandate, and the place where we are taught how men and women are to obey that dominion mandate, it is fitting for women to have a part in serving in worship under the authority of the deacon, priest, or bishop. To exclude godly women from their rightful place out of fear of what ungodly men and women do, or might do, is to deprive them of a glorious privilege given them by God. And it is all the worse to deprive them out of fear since it shows that fear of others’ actions and opinions is more the rule of our faith and life than is the Bible.