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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Of Pianos and Female Bishops

One of my favorite characters in Church History is St. Jerome. He was born in the mid-fourth century (300's AD), wrote in the latter quarter of that century and the early part of the 400's. He died around 420, having produced a vast body of literature, including letters, biblical translations, biblical commentaries, and essays refuting heresies. No one had higher praise or love for the intelligent, ascetic virgins of his day. They were his dear friends. He sobbed unabashedly when they died. These women were admired when they didn't bathe or fix their hair. Some fasted frequently and wore hair shirts. They also were adept at Latin, Greek, and (with Jerome's help) Hebrew. He lived in the early era of papism. Presbyter and bishop were basically the same office, the difference being a reference to age. These offices had at that time full ecclesiastical status; marriage was not yet forbidden to the clergy. The church made a difference between a catechumin and someone who had been baptized. A convert was regenerated and admitted to the ranks of the faithful as they rose out of the cleansing waters. One was then a wholly new person with sins forgiven and washed away.

Paul's ordinances about marriage and virgins engendered some confusion and disputation in the churches. His statement in I Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6 that an elder should be the husband of one wife caused a churchman to approach Jerome and challenge the ordination of a Spanish bishop whose first wife had died before he was baptized. He now had another wife, thus he has had two wives. Jerome demolished the man. He argued that the first wife was before baptism, thus the wholly new man in Christ has only had one wife. He detested the over-religious tendency to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Jerome may have objected to a man being ordained whose first wife had died after baptism. He certainly would have encouraged any unmarried bishop to remain that way. However, he pointed out that when a lascivious rogue or murderer who accepts Christ is baptized, former sin is forgiven and should not disqualify him from ordination. Therefore, should the poor deceased wife of a clergyman or bishop be drug from her grave to the confusion of the hapless cleric when a parade of harlots in that sinful stage of life might be passed over (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 6, Letter LXIX.3)? Paul's admonition, writes Jerome, was against the polygamists of his day that had more than one wife at a time, especially after baptism.

Although Jerome openly admired many women of his day, he never would have approved of them having authority in the church. He agreed with the worldview of the day that the holy Apostles had forbidden formal office such as pastor or teacher to the ladies, and he would not challenge that scriptural authority. It was even considered immodest for a woman to be heard singing hymns in public. He taught them to sing the Psalms in Hebrew, but within the confines of their own quarters.

We have overcome much in our day about the status of women. It took two thousand years of church history, but we can now vote, be educated, evangelize, be politicians, and even teach in seminaries, Bible Colleges, and universities. However, many denominations still withhold the office of pastor or bishop to women. One of the passages brought forth to justify this restraint is that a bishop must be the husband of one wife. A woman cannot have a wife. Paul intended bishops to be men. Such reasoning is on a par with the literalist who said that the first deceased wife disqualifies the cleric from ordination as a bishop. Today we have the ultraliteral Church of God claiming that because the New Testament does not enjoin the use of musical instruments, we do not have the authority to introduce them into our church services. All of their hymns are acapella. For us to say that a woman can teach in a seminary but cannot be a pastor or bishop is even more inconsistent. Should we say that because there are no pianos in the Bible that we can have harps and trumpets but not pianos in our churches? Paul himself wrote of the need to be competent ministers of a new covenant where the spirit of the law trumps the letter (2 Cor. 3:6). Can a woman be considered a "wholly new man (person)" or must we always be poor fallen Eve? If we can have pianos, can we have female pastors and bishops?