Arguments for male-only ministry, good and bad

A conversation with a good friend yesterday reminded me of an old (9 months; palaeolithic in internet debating terms) blog post by another good friend, Mike Higton. Mike addresses a class of arguments for restricting certain things – church teaching ministry, perhaps, but the argument works equally well for frontline combat roles or for preschool childcare – to people of one gender. He addressed arguments of the form: ‘This role requires characteristic X; But characteristic X is generally more developed in people of one gender; so this role should be reserved to people of that gender.’

Thus expressed, this is formal, but the concrete examples are not hard to list: men are generally physically stronger, so only men should be miners; women are generally more nurturing, so only women should be full-time parents; men are generally more logical, so only men should be teachers in the church; …

Mike’s point, wonderfully argued – do read the post - was that arguments of this form inevitably fail. Given their prevalence – I have seen similar arguments widely celebrated online in the past couple of weeks – it is worth spelling out this failure very carefully. Let me get formal again, and lay out the logic as carefully as I can:

C1: Role A requires people with a high degree of characteristic X, a requirement so important that it over-rides every other potential qualification.

C2: Characteristic X is unevenly distributed between genders, such that people of one gender on average exhibit it to a much higher degree than people of the other gender.

C3: Therefore, role A ought to be available to people of one gender only.

Thus stated, this argument is not quite demonstrably false, but it is very nearly so. The crucial point lies in the definition of ‘much higher’ in C2. The argument sketched can only have logical validity if ‘much higher’ is so extreme as to exclude the highest example from the other gender.

Let me illustrate by imagined example: let us take ‘height’ as characteristic X; unquestionably it is a gendered characteristic; the Scottish Health Survey in 2008 recorded the average height of men (aged 16+) as 175cm, and the average height of women (aged 16+) as 161.3cm. Role A might be ‘Goal Defence in a Netball team’; this is no doubt profoundly unfair to very gifted athletes, but suppose that actually height was what mattered here, far beyond talent, fitness, or any other characteristic; in a mixed netball team, should we reserve the GD role for men only?

The answer is – obviously I trust – no, or at least only yes in extraordinarily restrictive circumstances. Average heights are merely average; individual people are below or above them. I am, it happens, some way above the average male height according to this survey; but I have several female Scottish friends who are taller than me. When we went to the women’s Netball tournament at the Commonwealth Games, I am fairly sure that every single player on the four teams we watched was taller than me.

Now, I suppose that the tallest person in the world is a man (although this was not always true). So, I assume, is the second. Are the top hundred all male? The top ten thousand? It seems clear that, if a random village were to put together a netball team, it would not be at all impossible that the tallest person in the village would be female. It is unlikely, but that would lead us not to male-only Goal Defence play, but to a situation where most, but not all, GDs were male. Perhaps the proportion would be 80-20, perhaps 90-10; at some elite national level, it might even be 99.5-0.5. The point is it can never be 1-0; this form of argument cannot lead to a restriction of a role to one gender only; in the logic sketched above, C3 can never follow logically from C1 and C2.

Now, like Mike, I do not suppose that the characteristics necessary for Christian leadership of whatever form are gendered in any interesting way. But even if they were, a blanket ban on men (or women) serving in a particular leadership role would be wrong; we should instead be expecting and accepting a gender imbalance, not a gender monopoly. Someone committed to such an account of gendered characteristics might plausibly argue that preachers/church leaders ought to be 80% male, but s/he can never argue that these roles are restricted to men only.

Any argument of the form C1-C3 above necessarily fails. An argument for the restriction of church roles by gender on the basis of uneven gender distribution of a characteristic is always a bad argument; on grounds of logic, it simply fails.

Are there good arguments for such a restriction? Of course; they just take different forms. One might argue for unilateral, rather than uneven, distribution of a characteristic. Historically, there is an argument that menstruation renders women unclean, and so unable to serve in leadership. The logic here works, in that only women menstruate; I confess to a profound uneasiness with the premise, but that does not invalidate the logic. The Roman Catholic appeal to representation (only a man can represent the Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth at the altar) works similarly; if one is prepared to grant the premise, it is logically sound.

Alternatively, one might appeal simply to inscrutable divine instruction: God has decreed that only men should preach; we cannot offer a good reason for this, but it is God’s revealed will, so we live by it. Again, the logic here is impeccable; and if I personally regard the exegetical premise as weak, that does not change the worth of the logic: if the premise is correct, the conclusion follows.

But any argument of the form: ‘men are generally more X’; ‘X is necessary for preaching/church leadership’; ‘so only men should preach/lead churches’ necessarily fails, as a simple and boring matter of logic.


  1. Alastair
    Sep 5, 2014

    Am I correct in thinking that this is an indirect response to my post?

    I think that you neglect the fact that not all arguments drawing attention to gendered characteristics claim to be sufficient arguments against a given practice, nor frame their case in quite the way that you suggest. For instance, I argue against women in the priesthood/pastorate on certain grounds that would categorically exclude all cases. Within such arguments I might reference such things as the pre-Fall order, biblical precedent, Christ’s institution, scriptural teaching, the tradition, the capacity of men to symbolize the material hiatus between God and his creation involved in the symbolization of his authority to and within the Church, etc. Many of these arguments are not sufficient by themselves, but they do exclude all exceptions.

    However, alongside such arguments, it is possible to make arguments about the negative things that can result when the principle of a male-only priesthood is abandoned. Such arguments don’t need to be airtight arguments against any woman ever becoming a priest. While they may be articulated in the context of an absolute opposition to women in the priesthood—as mine was—all that they are arguing is that, in turning their backs on an male-only priesthood, supporters of women in the priesthood are also turning their backs upon a masculine priesthood, and that this shift has significant and deleterious effects. Ambivalence to secondary gendered characteristics invites distortions of the priesthood and our theology on various levels. While I don’t intend for this argument to bear the entire weight of my position, it has its place in the discussion. It may not be sufficient to ground my own position, but it directly challenges the positions of many of my interlocutors, for whom ambivalence to secondary gendered characteristics and traits when it comes to the priesthood is typically an implicit yet seldom challenged commitment (am I correct in my vague memory that you have previously argued in favour of something closer to a gender equalized pastoral ministry?).

    The fact of gender difference confronts us on many levels. My recent interactions with you focused on the impossibility of the sort of egalitarian society that many envisage. My argument wasn’t founded upon the claim that each and every male is X or female is Y, but that men and male groups are as a general rule more naturally oriented—and not just for pathological reasons—towards the creation of power and power structures than women and female groups are. While in small samples this fact may not be so clear, when we look at the bigger picture, it is harder to avoid. As an analogy, I know a family with nine boys and no girls, but this isn’t counterevidence to the claim that the boy-girl sex ratio at birth tends to be around 1.07 (such facts will become clearer the larger the population sample). The larger pattern of male power—one that continuously asserts itself in all sorts of cultures worldwide—needs to be given attention in its own right.

    My argument is that there are good reasons why this pattern emerges and that, without fundamental changes to the structure of human nature, it isn’t about to go away. None of this rests on universal claims about each and every man and woman (something that I emphasized in my comments). It is a fact about human societies, like the sex ratio. It is also something that egalitarians and feminists need to deal with more directly, as their vision bumps up against this reality in various ways. Even if we could ‘engineer’ a society that was supposedly more egalitarian—much as we might engineer a society with a peculiar sex ratio, but perhaps I repeat myself…!—we need to consider how such a society would relate to the broader human society, where the more basic natural pattern asserts itself, and what would have to be sacrificed in order to attain such an end.

    My later arguments took the discussion to different territory. I first addressed how priesthood requires masculine traits. These traits are definitely not the only traits that are required by the priesthood, but they are essential. Then I went further to present a more essentialist case for gender difference. One could perhaps argue that these three parts of my argument represent three levels of analysis: 1. Male dominance in power as a broader fact of human societies; 2. The necessity of certain traits for the priesthood that are masculine in character, i.e. traits that, in their more pronounced forms, are more characteristically found among males; 3. The existence of a fundamental and universal difference between men and women grounded in characteristically distinct modes of relationship and symbolization.

    • steve
      Sep 7, 2014

      Thanks, Alastair; quickly:
      1. Nope, you are wrong. I don’t follow your blog; sorry; there just isn’t time to read everything on the internet!
      2. I don’t think ‘neglect’ is the word; I just don’t consider such arguments here. I hope I made clear the class of arguments I was dealing with in the post; I certainly tried to be careful in so doing.
      3. I can see two meaningful uses of ‘priesthood’ in the NT; one is the priesthood of all believers, which is rather obviously not male-only. The other is the sole priesthood of Christ; that is male-only, I agree.

  2. Bev Murrill
    Sep 6, 2014

    I appreciate the insight here Steve, especially as it invalidates a faulty logic, the main purpose of which is to reinforce an inbuilt cultural bias.

  3. Phil Davies
    Sep 7, 2014

    If we change the perspective from positive / inclusive to negative / exclusive…

    C0. A group’s goal is to minimise the risk of the wrong person ending up in a position because of the consequences for the person and the group.
    C1 = C1
    C2 = C2
    C3′. Restricting the position to the gender (or otherwise half) having a demonstrably and significantly higher proportion of members with an essential characteristic is logical on the basis of minimising the risk mentioned in C0 if confidence in other mechanisms to avoid the wrong person for the role is low.

    There is a chance of a poor fit to the role in both genders but it may be considerably smaller in one than in the other.

    I don’t mean to imply that minimising risk in this way is a good thing, rather, a lazy and perhaps cowardly way of avoiding case by case accountability for selection. But it makes logical sense.

    It’s C1 I’m concerned abouy. Pretty sure I don’t believe it can be said of many jobs (including Priest) that characteristic X is so important that it overrides all others. If you found yourself in the unfortunate position of a job design in which only one individual must fulfil all needs I can see the argument for not being able to do without one particular characteristic. But if you believe in team it breaks down (except for the skill of building and leading the team).


  4. Christine Q-J (@Quinnjones2C)
    Sep 8, 2014

    This conversation has come to my attention because I follow Alastair. I am a parishioner and also a mother, grandmother and retired teacher.
    I realise that in the CofE priests are employed and there is inevitably a job description. I realise that being an ordained priest is a requirement for the ‘job’ and that the ‘job’ entails tasks and target-setting.
    However, looking at this from ‘grass roots’ level as a parishioner, I feel that a focus on skills is only part of the story and that ‘being’, ‘presence’ and ‘essence’ are significant dimensions in the ‘role’ of a church leader/priest. Being, presence and essence are difficult to define or quantify – they have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. However, I think Alastair has gone a long way towards defining ‘gender essentialism’ in his blog on that subject, and that what he has written is worthy and relevant.

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