In a section from “God in the Dock,” C.S. Lewis responds to a number of questions asked of him at a kind of forum called a “One Man Brains Trust.” One of those questions was, “Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness?” Lewis answered:
I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.
Lewis didn’t mean, of course, that Christianity is incapable of bringing joy or bliss to its adherents. Rather, Lewis meant that Christianity is designed to bring a far greater joy than the kind of shallow, earthly pleasures we often find more appealing.
If you want peace with God, and the eternal comfort that comes from being His forgiven child, Christianity offers you something that no one and nothing else can give you. If, however, you simply want to feel the bliss of earthly pleasures, Jack Daniels and money would do a far better job of satiating your desires than Jesus Christ and Mother Church.
The same is true of “equality.” Christianity offers countless joys to the lost and fallen sinners of this world. But if you’re looking for the joy that comes from receiving equal access to every aspect of the church’s ministry, you’re going to be disappointed.
Sameness In Everything Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be
You’ll find a great example of this disappointment in a recent article for America magazine, in which Jean Molesky-Poz laments a series of changes that squashed the practice of lay preachers in her parish, a practice that began in the mid-‘90s. First, in 2001, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops forbade the “lay faithful” from preaching “at the moment reserved for the homily.” Next, in 2009, a new bishop forbade all lay homilies but permitted lay people to offer a “reflection” (which is different from a homily in spelling rather than in substance). Then, after a new bishop arrived in 2013, he banned lay “reflections” as well.
Although all of these moves affected laymen and laywomen alike, Molesky-Poz focuses on the latter category, seeing each of these moves as part of a three-act play that could fairly be called “Magdala’s Tears: The Silencing of Catholic Women.” Catholic women are an integral part of the life of the church, she insists. They have a unique perspective and unique wisdom. If silenced, the church will suffer without their witness. Even worse, the church will effectively teach women that they are inferior to men.
Molesky-Poz’s perspective on this issue is hardly unique. James Martin, the pope of leftist Catholic Twitter, echoed her thoughts with this tweet:
It is stupefying to me that women cannot preach at Mass. The faithful during Mass, as well as the presiders, are missing out on the wisdom, experience and inspired reflections of half of its members. St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.https://t.co/USedUvBxS1
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) July 22, 2019
Likewise, any Christian belonging to a church body that upholds the Bible’s teachings on the male-only priesthood has likely heard this same outrage expressed in one form or another: Why are you stuck in the middle ages? Why do you think women aren’t good enough to do what men can do? Why are you so sexist?
In other words, the common philosophy here is that women can only have equal dignity in the church if they have equal access to the office of the ministry or, at the very least, access to functions of that office, such as preaching. If women can’t do these things, then the church has failed to achieve one of its core missions — making everyone feel welcome and validated.
Equality Isn’t Sameness
The problem with this mindset, however, is that the Lord of the church doesn’t share it. When God established the Old Testament priesthood, for example, he chose only men from the tribe of Levi to be his priests, yet considered every descendant of Abraham to be equally his own child through faith in the Messianic promise.
When Korah and his men assumed that Moses was hindering God’s inclusivity by hogging too much priestly glory for himself, God politely informed the group of rebels that they were wrong to conflate equal value with equal calling by giving them the sarlacc pit treatment. When Jesus called the 12 to be his inner circle of disciples, he wasn’t declaring his indifference toward everyone else — Christ’s love for all is something he displayed in virtually every one of his miracles and teachings.
When God chose someone to replace Judas through the lot-casting of the 11, he was confirming the apostolicity of Matthias, not denying the dignity of Barsabbas. Not all of these men were called to carry out the same tasks. They were not equal in vocation, even as they were perfectly equal in love. That’s the theology of equality the Scriptures confess.
Why, then, do so many people in Christian churches insist that the leaders of their church bodies are oppressing women by not letting them pursue ordination or perform pastoral functions? While there are perhaps many reasons, two stand out.
You Aren’t Better If You’re a Pastor
First is the belief women can’t be equal to men if they can’t be ordained, because being part of the clergy makes you somehow more valuable or precious to God. While it’s great when lay people ask pastors and priests to pray for them, as any parish pastor can tell you, the sad reality is that this request is very frequently driven by the belief that God is more likely to hear those prayers if they come from those who have “a direct line to the Man Upstairs.”
“Clergy are more sacred and more important than we are,” the laity often thinks. Therefore, if the church forbids women from acting like pastors, it’s preventing women from achieving the same heights of holiness available to men.
This is, of course, a fantastically false idea. Although the Scriptures speak of pastors being worthy of double honor, the above examples of God’s love for those He doesn’t call into the priesthood should make a compelling enough case for us to disavow any illusions to the contrary. If these aren’t sufficient, however, it’s worth remembering another place where God gave equal love to those with unequal vocations: the creation of Adam and Eve.
When God created man, he called him to be a husband and father. When he created woman, he called her to be a wife and mother. He designed men with greater physical strength to protect their families, just as he designed women with wombs and breasts to form and nourish life. These vocations are not equal in their job descriptions, but are equal in their dignity and importance.
Just as there would be no husbands without wives and vice versa, there would be no shepherd without the sheep and vice versa. And just as a man doesn’t need to give birth to have value in God’s eyes, so a woman doesn’t need to play pastor to be an essential part of the church.
Being a Pastor Isn’t a Pastoral Calling
On the note of male and female, the second reason we struggle with the male-only priesthood is because the church is surrounded by such profound blessing and prosperity that we don’t recognize the inherently masculine nature of the vocation.
To explain this point by way of analogy, in recent years our country has debated whether women are truly equal if they aren’t allowed in military combat or subject to the draft, should it be reinstated. This is, however, a luxury-of-peacetime debate. If scores of America’s husbands, sons, and brothers were coming home from war in body bags, we wouldn’t be shouting, “Take our wives, daughters, and sisters too, lest they be unequal.”
So it is with the pastoral office. When God calls a man into the ministry, He calls him to face down demons and to risk contracting the plague as he ministers to the dying. He calls him to preach words that might anger his hearers to the point of slander, cruelty, and even violence. Sometimes, God even calls his under-shepherds to be struck dead by enemies of the gospel as a final witness to their congregations.
We should look with utter disdain on a man who urges his wife to risk getting her face blown off in battle so he can stay home from the war. We should look the same way at a man who sends his wife into the pit of spiritual warfare while he waits safely outside.
We don’t, however, because we witness this kind of spiritual warfare so infrequently that we can’t even conceive of it being real. Because we have the luxury of imagining Rev. Lovejoy instead of St. Peter whenever we picture pastors, we end up assuming that vile misogyny, instead of vast mercy, is the only reason the Scriptures would limit that office to certain men.
As her article makes clear, Molesky-Poz and her fellow barred-from-preaching Catholics are certainly in need of comfort. However, the church will never succeed in bringing that comfort by opening doors that God has closed.
Women who believe they can’t be equal to men so long as only males are priests won’t find peace if given access to the pulpit. They’ll just move to the next logical step, insisting that women can’t be equal to men as long as God is male, as the more leftist among us have shown quite clearly. Rather, to give comfort to those who need it on this front, the church would do well to point to the words that St. Paul wrote precisely on this subject.
A Hunger for Far Greater Equality
In 1 Timothy 2, right after stating that women are not to carry out pastoral tasks, that they aren’t to “teach or exercise authority over a man,” Paul goes on to state, “Yet [women] will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” If you want the kind of equality the world hungers for, Christianity is going to leave you disappointed.
While these words sound rather absurd and jarring on the surface, Paul is not, in fact, stating that the act of childbirth confers salvation to women or that women can’t inherit eternal life without first becoming mothers. Rather, Paul is employing the C.S. Lewis approach for Molesky-Poz and every other woman of her ilk, effectively saying to them, “If you want the kind of equality the world hungers for, Christianity is going to leave you disappointed. But if you hunger for a far greater equality, you’ll always be satisfied.”
By linking the uniquely female act of childbirth with salvation, Paul is looking at women who feel unequal because they can’t be ordained and saying, “You’re not unequal. You don’t have to become either a pastor or a man to find value in the eyes of God. Rather, rejoice to do the work God has given you to do in your vocation as a woman. When you do that, you’ll find all the equality, all the value, and all the divine love you’ll ever need.”
Equally Welcome in the Kingdom
Here, Paul is saying, “You don’t need to twist the scriptures to turn Mary Magdalene into something she wasn’t, imagining her as a pulpit-seizing trailblazer whose footsteps you’re not allowed to follow. Rather, see her as she was — a godly laywoman who faithfully carried out her vocation as a sister in Christ by telling her friends and brothers the joyous thing she saw. Mary didn’t preach in the way a pastor or priest does. She witnessed to her friends, to those she loved, to those who needed a word of comfort. And you have the right to do so as well.
“So do it. Be a faithful Christian woman. Teach your children to pray, show them how to read the scriptures and love the gospel. Care for your friends who are sick and your neighbors who are poor. Let the love of Christ shine through your good works. Invite your lost neighbors to church, where they can hear the word of salvation. Whether or not they join you, when you’re sitting in the pew on Sunday morning, don’t assume you need to be up at the pulpit to please God. You don’t.
“In fact, don’t even see the pulpit as the place of glory in the sanctuary, because it’s not. Your seat is. You are the guest of honor. The feast is being thrown because, through Christ’s blood, you are now equally righteous as the Savior himself. You’re now equally as beloved in the eyes of your Father as his only begotten Son, which means you’re now equally as welcome in his kingdom as every prophet, priest, and pastor who ever labored in his service.”
God established his church to proclaim that we have a far greater equality, equal standing in the family of God— men and women, laity and clergy alike. God did not establish his church to bring the kind of earthly happiness that those among the thorns desire, but a far greater happiness — one that can survive an onslaught of devils, death, and destruction because it trusts that all good things remain yours forever through the death and resurrection of Christ.
In the same way, God did not establish his church to give us the kind of shallow equality we celebrate whenever we hear about the first woman to parkour the Chunnel on a Wednesday evening in July. Rather, God established his church to proclaim that we have a far greater equality, equal standing in the family of God — men and women, laity and clergy alike. This may not appeal to those who can’t imagine any greater honor than being the center of attention on a Sunday morning. But the more boldly the church proclaims the goodness of the male-only priesthood, the more those desiring higher things will come to discover the beauty of true, Christian equality.