So the Anglicans in the UK have delayed yet again the vote on female bishops. I find the whole thing bewildering. I have written on this before, http://drmarkk.blogspot.co.nz/2010/07/women-bishops-in-uk.html, but want to look at Philippians around the question. I know a little about Philippians, having written a few articles, a thesis, and now most of a commentary on the book.
The bishop is drawn from the notion of the episkopos, in Greek, an 'overseer.' The word is found once in Acts (Acts 20:28) of the leaders of the Ephesus church, of Jesus the supreme overseer (1 Pet 2:25), and in Paul three times of church elders (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:7; Phil 1:1). It is generally believed that the references in 1 Tim and Titus rule out women in this role, as the overseer is to be a husband of one wife. This may be correct. However, the Philippians' reference is intriguing and raises doubts.
Only in this letter does Paul single out the overseers and deacons (Phil 1:1). He then goes about writing a letter which is dominated by the unity issue. This is seen in Phil 1:5, "the partnership of the gospel;" in his report of his situation in Rome where preachers are divided over him (Phil 1:14-18); in his central proposition of the letter in 1:27 including "standing firm in one Spirit", "contending as one for the faith of the gospel;" in 2:1-4 he gets more direct, appealing for the Philippians with a four-fold emphatic construct to have the "same love, the same mind, to be one-souled, and one minded," they are to be humble and elevate others, being others-centred; in 2:5-8 they are to emulate Christ who embodies unity with God; in 2:14-15 they are to stop complaining and arguing; the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus point to their preparedness to partner with Christ and Paul for the gospel (Phil 2:19-25); in 3:2, 18 they are to shun false teachers, otherwise they are to be unified; in 3:16 he tells the Philippians if there are points of disagreement, God will bring fresh revelation to bring them into unity. Finally, in 4:2-3, he directly addresses the two at the centre of the debate, two women, Euodia and Syntyche. Using language used in 1:27; 2:2 he appeals to them to be unified in their mindset.
This all raises the question of who these women were. For Paul to write a letter dominated by the issues of their relationship suggests they were more than a couple of housewives having a squabble over the carpet or scones. Rather, they are clearly significant people, leaders of some sort with some degree of influence that occasioned Paul's letter all the way from Rome 1400km away. Not to mention that he is prepared to send two of his best co-workers, and come himself to sort it out (see 1:24-26; 2:19-30). This is clearly some issue.
The two women are described as "co-workers", which is Paul-speak for gospel preachers (used of Timothy, Titus, Aquila and Priscilla, Philemon and others). They worked beside him for the gospel, on previous visits. Again this says more than scone making. We know that the church was not led by a single bishop in those days (the word overseer is only plural in the NT). We know that women hosted and likely led churches including Lydia who hosted the first Philippian house-church in Acts 16:14-15, 40, and Nympha in Col 4:15. This all points to these women being at least house church leaders, pastors, preachers, and likely, overseers or deaconesses. A number of scholars suggest the latter. Why not the former? After all, if the church began in the home of a woman, and the letter singles out leaders, why not? So, were these women in fact bishops? It is certainly a good debate either way, if not conclusive.
The debate also hinges on which verses your privilege. If you privilege "husband of one wife" over Phil 1:1 which is ambiguous, you will argue that the Philippians verse should be read through the lens of 1 Tim and Titus. On the other hand, these latter two texts may apply only to Ephesus and Crete, perhaps because of female involvement in false teaching. So one can equally privilege Phil 1:1.
All in all, I don't get the refusal to have woman bishops. There are lots of signals in the NT, like the one above, that women should not to be limited in ministry, even though there are two situations where Paul acts to limit them (1 Cor 14; 1 Tim 2). Neither of these texts, however, state that the limitation is universal for all of time. They could equally be situational. Indeed, 1 Cor 14 follows 1 Cor 11:4-5 where women are permitted to speak in church, so it would seem likely 1 Cor 14 is a situational issue.
Anyway, Paul himself advocated flexibility on non-essentials on the basis of culture (1 Cor 9:19-22). I suspect he would say to those discussing this that in a nation where a woman can lead the nation, why not the church? It is not as if this is a salvation issue Christians should be so determined to split over.
Why should a woman who is a good leader, preacher, administrator and carries a sense of call, not be released into ministry, including that of being a Bishop? Especially so in lands where a woman is queen, where women lead businesses, schools, and become PM's (Thatcher). In fact, it is decidedly ironic that the head of the church is a woman (the Queen), and yet they can't be bishops! Not to mention that the idea of a single bishop is a post-biblical development anyway. Come on!
Jesus on no occasion limits people like this; if anything he went the other way allowing people freedom to serve (e.g. Luke 9:49-50). It is not as if Christian ministry is defined primarily by authority, it is defined by servanthood.
Neither is this issue on the same scale as the gay issue, which seems to be assumed in the debate by many. The whole Biblical Narrative gives no sense that the Law, Prophets, Christ, Paul or any other writer was open to the possibility of gay leaders. So, it is a different discussion.
On the other hand, slavery, gender and race issues we see contrary and subversive notes through Scripture. On slavery the seeds are sown in Philemon and Eph 6:9 which to me anticipate the end of slavery. On gender, in texts like Deborah, Philippians, people like Mary at Jesus' feet, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman of John 4, Nympha, Priscilla, Junia and the women of Rom 16. On race, we see proselytes leading from Acts 6; Luke was likely a gentile, as were many of the leaders of the churches (e.g. Philemon, Clement etc).
I am all for the authority of Scripture, for an evangelicalism based on Scripture, but we have to do it well. I find the whole thing perplexing. There is a time biblical conservatism becomes deeply troubling.