Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination is a compelling and capable defense of women sharing the full sweep of responsibilities for leadership in the Church. Despite the contention this topic breeds and the heat it generates, each chapter fairly and charitably rehearses arguments for and against women serving in church leadership. Author William G. Witt rigorously engages all the relevant biblical texts, along with traditional and contemporary testimony from Catholic and Protestant opposing voices. With philosophical and theological acumen, Witt applies careful historical, theological, literary, and exegetical analyses throughout, while keeping a practical focus on the Church.

Since the breadth and depth of this book is significantly large, a full-on review will not be ventured here. Instead, I will curate one aspect from Witt’s research that I believe is both keen and critical to consider but one that has been missing in the ongoing debate on women ordination. Although not the only unique contribution Witt brings to the discussion (see esp. pp 283-291), it is one that has far-reaching implications for all disciples of Christ. My hope is that reader interest will be ignited, dialog will be stimulated, and, most importantly, the needed change that is long overdue across the theater of Christianity is generated.

Christological Subversion

In setting up the idea of christological subversion, Witt astutely points to the distinctive and contradictory approaches between Catholic and Protestant opposition to women ordination. He writes:

For the Catholic position, women cannot be ordained because they do not resemble a male Christ. For the Protestant position, women cannot be ordained because they do resemble Christ; in the same way, it is claimed, that the Son always submits to the Father, women must always be in submission to male authority. At the same time, insofar as these ironically contrary reasons for not ordaining women appeal to Christology for their opposition to women’s ordination, they share a common characteristic. Both positions use highly abstract arguments that are somewhat removed from the actual narratives about Jesus in the gospels or the specific focus of the teaching about Jesus in the epistles. (p 75)

That is, those opposed to women ordination fail to recognize what Witt calls the principle of christological subversion, where “irony and paradox … use words in ways that seem to mean the opposite of their original meaning or seem self-contradictory but actually, when we think about them, have a deeper meaning” (p 77). He opines the gospels (and epistles) “develop a Christology that is subversive of ‘common sense’ and turns our world upside down” (p 78). The key to this turning is the direction in which it moves, viz., from the inside out. 

In Jesus’ day society was hierarchical (master/slave) and patriarchal (male controlling) wherein authority was assumed and submission was the standard to which slaves, women, and children adhered. Moreover, the honor/shame culture played a major role in the area of control between groups and even within groups (Jew/Gentile; Pharisees/Sadducees). Indeed, it is within these cultural contexts that the public shame of the cross was used by Rome “to remind observers of the shameful end of those who strayed from the culture’s values” (p 84). And yet, Jesus’ teachings, life, death, and even resurrection, subverted them all. Examples laid out include (see pp. 77-97), 

Jesus insisted that following him could disrupt traditional family ties and that loyalty to him superseded loyalty to family (Matt. 10:21; 34-37) … By designating God as “Father,” Jesus provided an alternative “fictive kingship” system … [and] undermined traditional patriarchal understanding of what it means to be a father. 

Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God subverted not only Roman rule and the delegated authority of Jewish leaders under the Romans, but also Jewish political movements such as the Zealots who wished to overthrow such rule.

Jesus’ command to forgive subverted the dynamics of the “honor challenge.” Rather than respond to the challenge to one’s honor with an equal response of insult or perhaps violence, Jesus commanded his followers to respond to such challenges … by resisting evil, turning the other cheek, and go the extra mile (Matt. 5:38-41).

Jesus’ relationships with women challenged the honor system by “crossing acceptable boundaries” [such as] the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4) shows him not only associating with non-Jews, but also associating with a woman in a way that was contrary to accepted practice.

Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman … depicts Jesus ministering to a woman who is not only a non-Jew, but a member of a group that is an historical enemy of the Jewish people (Mark 7:24-30; Matt. 15:21-28).

Germane to the discussion around women ordination is Jesus’ subversive challenge to the notions of servanthood and submission (pp. 92-94). “Jesus reverses normal understandings of leadership and authority” by insisting upon maintaining the humility of a child (Mark 9:35; Matt. 18:4), voluntarily assuming the role of slave toward others (Mark 10:44-45), and performing the lowliest of tasks (foot washing; John 13:16).

Equally significant is the fact that, 

the authority that Jesus gave to his apostles was authority over demons and unclean spirits, as well as over illness and death (Matt. 10:1, 8; Mark 3:14-15; 6:7-30; Luke 9:1). When the gospels use the word ἐξουσία (exousia, “authority”) in reference to the apostles, it is always in reference to their authority over nonhuman enemies of the gospel, never to human beings ….

Jesus repudiated the notion of authority as a simple hierarchical top-down structure in which some exercise authority over others whose responsibility it is to submit. (pp 93-94)

All of these examples (the pinnacle of which is Jesus’ crucifixion!) indicate Jesus challenged biases, prejudices, assumptions, values, and expectations of every human institution in his day and subversively and substantively changed the world from the inside out, not from the top down. The Lord of glory did not set out to undo those hierarchical and patriarchal systems but did radically undermined them by his teachings and example. 

The hermeneutical tool of christological subversion is further applied in subsequent chapters, particularly as it relates to the house codes of Ephesians 5, husband / wife relationship, mutual submission, worship practices, headship and headcoverings, and even slavery. Paul’s challenge to believers is the same as Jesus’ challenge: mutual submission for the sake of love. And, “there is nothing about mutual submission in love patterned on Christ’s cruciform self-sacrifice that is inherently gender-specific” (p 349).

Nothing indeed!


Further on re: Jesus’ use of subversion see my post here, “Make Church Great Again

See also Scot McKnight’s praise.

Author William G. Witt is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Trinity School for Ministry. His blog is especially worth visiting.

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