An Argument for Women Pastors and Theologians
Matthew L. Becker
Associate Professor of Theology,
For many Christian church communities today, the practice of women teaching
theology in a university or seminary is not an issue.
The largest Christian denomination in the world, the Roman Catholic
Church, has allowed this practice for many years.
The number of female teachers of theology in Roman Catholic and
Protestant universities and seminaries is significant. Less common, but still
quite common in the major Protestant church bodies in Europe, North America,
For some church
communities, such as the
In keeping with what Paul wrote in chapter 11 concerning the relation of woman to man, he forbids women to speak in the churches. They are to recognize the headship of men in the church. Men are to be in charge in church assemblies. The Law requires this.
After quoting 1 Tim. 2:13-14, Toppe continues:
In the inspired
record of Genesis 1-3 the Holy Spirit established the headship of man in the
church as well as in the family.
Church bodies that reject this order of creation and the lesson of the Fall will
have to answer to God for their disobedience…
Women are not even to raise questions in the public worship assemblies.
If they want information, they should ask their “husbands” at home…
Paul told the women in the congregation in
Armin Schuetze, also a member of the Wisconsin Synod, offers a similar exegetical application in his commentary on 1 Timothy, also published by Concordia Publishing House:
Paul’s concern in writing to Timothy is that the male and female relationship may find application in the church, as it assembles for worship and work. Since it is based not on local custom but on God’s order established at creation, its validity continues and requires application today.
On the same page,
Schuetze supports his exegetical conclusion by quoting from a
Women will not, therefore, seek the pastoral office because they want to uphold the principle of the headship of man…. The Christian woman knows that if she were to demand the right to vote and to govern the congregation, she would be exercising authority over the man who is to be her head…. The leaders of our congregations will constantly look for new areas to which they can properly direct the zeal and talents of dedicated women.
Contrary to the view that the scripture texts in question are clear in their meaning and contemporary application, many faithful scholars think these texts raise more questions than they settle, especially when one seeks to understand the probable meanings they had in their original textual and historical contexts. Typical is the judgment of Wayne Meeks:
Details in these verses are obscure, and their general tone does not easily resonate with other passages in Paul (most notably Galatians 3:26-29; but also Romans 5; 12:3-8; 16:1-7, 12; 1 Corinthians 12-13; Colossians 3:11-17), other passages in the New Testament (Luke 2:36-38; 10:39; Acts 18:26; Acts 21:9), and some passages in the Old Testament (Genesis 1:26-27; Exodus 15:20-21; Judges 4:4-10; 2 Samuel 20:16-22; 2 Kings 22:14-20; Joel 2:28-29). The ambiguity in these Corinthian and Ephesian (e.g., 1 Tim. 2) texts is heightened when one seeks to separate them out from the rest of the biblical witness and from their historical contexts, and use them in a contemporary situation which is different from those addressed in the texts. The contemporary situation of church and society has itself been positively impacted by consequences of the gospel which have changed ecclesial and societal “orderings” since the First Century: one thinks, in particular, of how the gospel has affected the dissolution of slavery and racism and “separate but equal” ideology in England and America, and of how the gospel has influenced movements toward greater equality between the sexes in western culture as a whole and in the church in particular.
The thesis of this essay is that qualified women may serve as teachers of biblical doctrine in churches, high schools, universities, and seminaries, and as pastors of congregations. In order to make this argument one must first address the ambiguities within and surrounding the traditional proof texts that have been used to limit or even oppose women in these offices. One must then consider the scriptural support for women as theologians and pastoral leaders. Third, one must attend to additional hermeneutical and dogmatic considerations that also speak to the issue. Finally, one should take into account those many women who have faithfully taught doctrine in the history of the church, also in universities and seminaries of denominations which do not normally allow women to serve as pastors or priests.
I. Ambiguities in the Traditional Proof Texts That Restrict Women
(1) Many scholars have wondered how to reconcile 1 Cor. 14:33b-38, wherein women are not to speak during the divine service (as was the custom in the Jewish synagogue and in the Jewish-Christian congregation), with 1 Cor. 11:3-16, wherein Paul presupposes that women in the Corinthian congregation were prophesying and praying (vv. 5, 13). In the earlier section of his letter, Paul does not rebuke the women prophesying, but insists that when they prophesy and pray they must wear a covering (an “authority,” discussed below) on their head. In chapter 14, however, he insists that women must remain silent in the churches; they are not permitted to speak. Do these two sections contradict each other? While some scholars have argued that 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 is a later interpolation, since v. 37 seems to connect better with v. 33a than with v. 36, and since there are peculiarities in the textual tradition (vv.33b-35 are found after v. 40 in some ancient manuscripts), such a conclusion is arbitrary and not persuasive on textual-critical grounds. Nonetheless, among the several remaining interpretive possibilities, no one conclusion is compelling. What is compelling is that any faithful interpretation of 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Cor. 14 will have to reckon with the historical context(s) of the Corinthian correspondence, a context which included women speaking in the congregation, and the historical situations of Paul’s other congregations.
If both of these
statements came from the apostle Paul, they applied specifically to the
situation that Paul faced in
Even if 1 Cor. 14:33b-34 originally meant that a woman was never to preach or teach the word of God in the public gathering of any congregation for the divine service (cf. 1 Timothy 2:12), one wonders how one can now apply that historic position to the far different situation of a woman teaching theology to students in a classroom of a contemporary university or seminary or to women serving as pastors in a society that generally acknowledges the civic equality of men and women. Certainly the passage does not mean that women may never speak in the congregation (let alone in other contexts), since 1 Cor. 11 merely puts a few limits on how women should speak in the congregation when they do speak, and other Scriptural texts indicate that women publicly taught the word of God to others. (These texts will be addressed below.) The command in 1 Cor. 14:33b-36, therefore, cannot serve as a universal and timeless command that applies to women speaking in all contexts and situations of the Christian church and its mission.
2) Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 11 stresses doing things decently and in order, though the particularities of his line of thinking involve hair length and the covering of the head. As a part of this argument Paul asserts, “The woman ought to have a covering (exousia, lit. ‘authority’) on her head because of the angels” (11:10). Frederick Danker notes that there is no scholarly consensus about the meaning of this verse. According to his research, many now understand the “exousia” in this verse “as a means of exercising power.” The veil (“kalumma”) is the symbol for this “exousia” (cf. the critical apparatus in the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament) “by which women at prayer (when they draw near to the heavenly realm) protect themselves from the amorous glances of certain angels. But the veil may also have been simply a symbol of womanly dignity, especially befitting a Christian woman, and especially in the presence of holy angels.”
Jewish priests were required to wear a head covering (Ezek. 44:18), but were forbidden to have long hair (cf. Ezek. 44:20). In the Hellenistic world, women were accustomed to wearing their hair up in a crown, since to do otherwise was a sign of promiscuity. For a Jewish woman, also, to wear her hair down was a sign of adultery (Num. 5:18). Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza maintains that Paul’s chief concern in 1 Cor. 11 is that women not appear to be like the female ecstatics in the oriental cults of Dionysus, Cybele, Pythia at Delphia, and the Sibyl. Paul wants to curb the ecstatic excesses and frenzy in the Corinthian worship. “For Paul, building up of the community and intelligible missionary proclamation, not orgiastic behavior, are the true signs of the Spirit. In this context it is understandable why Paul insists that women should keep their hair bound up.”
According to Conzelmann:
The wearing of a
covering on the head is already customary in
While Paul does not indicate that some elements in his line of thinking are inferior to others, nor that any one of them could be considered passe in the future, all contemporary interpreters reject the binding character of parts of the text. For example, many in the LCMS assert that Paul’s commands regarding hair-length and keeping a woman’s head covered because of the angels are no longer binding, yet these same interpreters fail to recognize that these commands are near the heart of Paul’s “self-evident” and “natural” argument for women to remain subordinate in the church.
3) Some theologians have used 1 Cor. 11:3ff, 14:33b-36; 1 Tim. 2:8ff, 1 Pet. 3:1ff, and related texts to support a “theology of subordination,” sometimes discussed in terms of “the order of creation,” as in the recent doctrinal tradition of the LCMS, but this line of thinking is deeply problematic, for reasons that will be set forth below. In the recent history of the LCMS (especially after 1950), this appeal to a biblical “order of creation” has been central for those who seek to restrict the role and service of women in the LCMS. For example, the LCMS resolution that granted women’s suffrage, adopted at its 1969 Denver Convention, reads in part:
1. Those statements of Scripture which direct women to keep silent in the church and which prohibit them to teach and to exercise authority over men, we understand to mean that women ought not to hold the pastoral office or serve in any other capacity involving the distinctive functions of this office. 2. The principles set forth in such passages, we believe, prohibit holding any other kind of office or membership on boards or committees in the institutional structures of a congregation, only if this involves women in a violation of the order of creation.
A 1985 report of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) includes sections on “Male and Female,” “Creation and Redemption,” “Headship and Subordination,” and “The Exercise of Authority,” which together serve as the most recent LCMS statement on “the order of creation.” According to the CTCR, the “order of creation” is the “headship structure” of creation, the “Kephale-structure,” established in Gen 2, wherein the woman/wife is to be subordinate to the man/husband (see also Gen. 3:16: “…he shall rule over you”). This “headship structure” is a permanent “order” or “ordering” of the Creator until the Last Day. It cannot be changed or altered without violence to creation itself. This same understanding is given in an editorial note to 1 Tim. 2:12-14 in the Concordia Self-Study Bible:
In Lutheran tradition the appeal to the creation account makes the restrictions universal and permanent: 1 Adam was formed first. Paul appeals to the priority of Adam in creation, which predates the fall. Thus he views the man-woman relationship set forth in this passage as grounded in creation. 2. the woman…was deceived. Paul appears to argue that since the woman was deceived (and then led Adam astray), she is not to be entrusted with the teaching function of an overseer (or elder) in the public worship services of the assembled church.
According to Peter Brunner (1900-1981), a Lutheran theologian who influenced the 1985 CTCR report, the gospel does not essentially change or affect the headship of males to females. While the gospel forgives people their sins, and gives salvation to men and women within the Creator’s order of male-headship under Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 11:33ff; 14:34; Eph. 5:23ff; Col. 3:18), the gospel does not in any way change the headship “ordering” of male to female. While the gospel does not change the ontological structure of the order, it does change people and their relationships to each other within that created order. The “order of redemption” does not change or “subvert” or “reverse” “the order of creation.” Consequently, Brunner argues that women may not serve as pastors since such an “ordaining” would disrupt the divinely-established ordering of the Creator:
T]he combination of being “woman” and being “pastor” contradict one another in a manner which involves the woman in the hidden depths of her created being in a conflict which attacks her very being. This conflict roots in the fact that the combination of pastoral office and being woman objectively and fundamentally destroys the kephale-structure of the relationship between man and woman and therefore also rejects the “ordering into” and “subordination to” (hypotage) which is demanded by God’s will.
Implicit in this view is the assumption that “the subordination” of women/wives to men/husbands is a permanent ontological “ordering.” Those who hold this understanding stress the use of the Greek verb, “hypotasso,” in the biblical texts of 1 Cor. 14:33b-34, Eph. 5:22, Col. 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Pet. 3:1-5. This Greek term literally means, "to cause to be in a submissive relationship, to subject, to subordinate," as in "to bring someone to subjection" (e.g., God "subjecting creation to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it," Rom. 8:20). The biblical texts thus speak of evil spirits “being subject” to the disciples that Jesus sends (Luke 10:17, 20), of prophetic spirits “being subject” to the prophets in whom they dwell (1 Cor. 14:32), of children “being subject” to parents (Luke 2:51; cf. Eph. 6:1), of slaves “being subject” to masters (Titus 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18), of Christians “being subject” to the secular authorities (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13), of Christians “being subject” to church officials (1 Pet. 5:5), and to the will of God (1 Cor. 15:28b; Heb. 12:9; James 4:7), and to the law (Rom. 8:7, 10:3), in addition to wives/women “being subject” to husbands/men. (Only 1 Cor. 16:16, Eph. 5:21, and 1 Pet. 5:5b speak of "subordination/submission" in the sense of a voluntary yielding in love; the other texts listed here speak of “subordination/submission" in a non-voluntary sense.)
While one cannot deny that “hypotasso/“subordinationist” language is found in the New Testament, the real issue, of course, is: What do these texts mean today and how are they to be applied today? For example, a key issue in one’s assessment of Brunner’s position entails the question: how does Brunner understand the “new creation” inaugurated by the gospel? In what way is the “new creation” new, if the gospel has no effect on the supposed ontological structure of the order of creation? Has not the ontological reality of death, for example, the law of death, been overcome—even now—in the life of the one who trusts in Christ’s death and resurrection, at least according to the Gospel of John? John’s “realized eschatology” seems to throw a curve at those who wish to defend and maintain an “old order of creation” in light of the new creation in Christ. Could one not argue that the reality of subordination, the Creator’s law and judgment of women’s subordination to men (Gen. 3:16), has been overcome, and itself “subordinated,” even now, in the lives of those who live by faith in Christ within that “new creation in Christ?”
theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), offers a contrary position to that
For Bonhoeffer the traditional notion of “orders of creation” is deeply
problematic not only because it is inevitably an artificial human construct that
serves sinful human beings' pride and power over against other human beings and
the rest of creation, but also because such an “order," however construed, has
been radically qualified by the new creation inaugurated by Christ.
To focus on a supposed “order of creation” established in ancient
Another Lutheran theologian, Edward Schroeder, has also critically examined the traditional notion of an “order of creation.” Schroeder’s argument is based partly on Werner Elert’s (1885-1954) understanding of the “Creator’s orders.” Like Elert and Bonhoeffer, Schroeder argues that the “orders of creation” are not permanent, static structures, but mutable, dynamic “ordainings” or “orderings” of the Creator (i.e., “placements” or “stations,” as in “positions” assigned to each person on a baseball team).
Because the orders
as trans-individual patterns and configurations of a whole society are
historical entities, they are subject to the “law” (that is, the Creator’s law)
of historical change. Cannot the
same also be said about the pattern of relationship between the sexes from one
age to another? In
Still, even Schroeder acknowledges that Christians are not called to “junk the orders”:
For Schroeder, all
the “orderings” in creation have been affected by the fall into sin.
We live in an “order” on this side of
The good news, according to Schroeder, is that this sinful order and divine judgment are “crossed” by the gospel which proclaims that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them,” and establishing a “new creation in Christ.” In light of Schroeder’s argument, one could say that Genesis 2-3 is done over in the image of Christ. Even 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 suggests that “in the Lord” there is a new order: women now prophesy and pray publicly, though they must do these “decently and in order.” Even Paul himself recognizes the ambiguity in the notion of “head” (kephale) or “subordination” when he reminds his readers of the mutuality, reciprocity and interdependence that exists between men and women: “…woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Cor. 11:11-13). “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
While Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Elert, and Schroeder interpret 1 Cor. 11, 1 Cor. 14, and 1 Tim. 2:14 (also Eph. 5:23ff.; Colossians 3:18; and 1 Peter 3:1ff.) in the light of Paul’s preaching of the “new creation,” Brunner differs from the others in his understanding of the consequences that that “new creation” has for the old creation. The truth of the gospel confesses that Christ, the Second Adam, redeems this kephale-structure distorted and disordered since the fall into sin “through Adam.” Brunner maintains that the kephale-structure itself is not structurally changed by the gospel but remains in effect until the Last Judgment; Bonhoeffer, Elert, and Schroeder assert that the dynamic structure in which men and women relate historically undergoes positive historic change by means of the gospel’s promise and effects. This difference in understanding the gospel and its relation to the “orderings” in creation seems to be the crux: Does the gospel have any effect on the kephale-structure and, if it does, what is that effect? Does the gospel forgive men and women and also have an impact on their relation to one another at a “structural” or “ordering” level (as Bonhoeffer, Elert, and Schroeder argue) or does the gospel (merely) forgive men and women “in the Creator’s order” and affect their relations to each other “within the order of creation” (as Brunner, Zerbst, and some theologians in the LCMS have argued)?
The latter position seems to be based on two unproven and unnecessary assumptions, namely, that there is an “ontological difference” between men and women at the core of their respective “beings,” and that this ontological difference makes “woman” subordinate to “man.” These assumptions, however, seem more indebted to Aristotle, Jewish rabbinical teaching, and to Thomas Aquinas, than to any clear biblical text.
Following several other scholars, Fiorenza interprets the biblical texts that speak of woman’s “subordination” to man as the result of an influence of Aristotle on the New Testament patriarchal pattern by way of the patriarchal pattern found in Hellenistic Judaism:
Although the negative influence of Aristotle on Christian anthropology is widely acknowledged today, it is not sufficiently recognized that such an anthropology was rooted in Aristotle’s understanding of political rule and domination. Just as he defined the “nature” of slaves with respect to their status as property and economic function, so Aristotle defined the “nature” of women as that of someone who does not have “full authority” to rule, although he is well aware that such rule was an actual historical possibility and reality. The definition of “woman’s nature” and “woman’s proper sphere” is thus rooted in a certain relation of domination and subordination between man and woman having a concrete political background and purpose. Western misogynism has its root in the rules for the household as the model of the state. A feminist theology therefore must not only analyze the anthropological dualism generated by western culture and theology, but also uncover its political roots in the patriarchal household of antiquity.
According to Fiorenza, the New Testament “house-codes” (Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:11-4:1; 1 Pet. 2:11-3:12) participate in the “trajectory of the patriarchal household-code tradition” insofar as they take over the house-hold code pattern and reassert the subordination and submission of the wife to the husband and the slave to the master as a religious duty. In traditional Judaism, the inferior ontology of women was also taken for granted. “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man.” A prayer in the Babylonian Talmud reads: “Blessed [be God] who has not made me a woman.”
But the New Testament codes modify that Aristotelian-Jewish tradition by replacing patriarchal domination with the Christian mandate to love as Christ loves. One will also note the importance of “mutuality under Christ” that is evident in 1 Cor. 11 and Eph. 5:21 and related passsages. Thus, the views toward women that one finds in Aristotle and Jewish rabbinic thought seem sharply opposed to a central consequence of the gospel, namely, that “in Christ there is neither male and female” (Gal. 3:28).
4) According to 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14, women are not only to be subordinate in the churches, they are to be silent; yet, if the exhortation in 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14 were followed rigidly, women could not utter any sound within a Christian congregation (e.g. in the liturgy, at Bible class, at council meetings, during the work of the evangelism committee). But of course no one today thinks that this is what the passage is commanding. Certainly, when 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 forbids women from speaking, and when 1 Tim. 2:11-14 restricts women from teaching, Paul does not have in mind the kind of theological instruction which takes place in a university or seminary of the church. More likely Paul is thinking of preaching which takes place in the context of the divine liturgy in the congregation: “Paul does not altogether forbid women to speak in church (see 1 Cor. 11:5). What he is forbidding is the disorderly speaking indicated in these verses.”
Therefore, Paul is not contending that Christian women are to avoid teaching under any circumstances. Elsewhere the New Testament indicates that women did teach in a context other than the community worship service (e.g. Priscilla, Acts 18:26). The apostolic restriction in 1 Tim. 2 pertains to that teaching of God’s Word which involves an essential function of the pastoral office. The word didaskein is inappropriately applied to the Sunday school teacher, the Christian day school teacher, the home Bible study teacher.
that 1 Tim. 2:9-10 addresses seems to have been a situation in which some women
had “seized authority” improperly in order to teach their false teaching.
The author (Paul?) forbids these women “to teach in such a way as to take
authority,” i.e., “teach” [didasko]
and “seize authority” [authento] are
to be read together. Danker defines
“authenteo” as “to assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to,
If this reading is correct, and a significant number of scholars think
so, then the author merely forbids (these) women to “seize authority”
overbearingly, which is also forbidden to male disciples (cf. Mark 10:42-45).
For example, Towner concludes that the false teachers unleashed an
“emancipatory activism” among the women at
Since second-century Gnostics saw Eve as the originator of Adam, 1 Timothy (likely written in the second century) could be refuting a gnostic myth. C. S. Keener summarizes the social situation of the letter as follows:
Male false teachers (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17) have been introducing dangerous heresy into the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 1:4-7; 6:3-5), often beginning by gaining access to its women, who would normally have been difficult to reach because of their greater restriction to the domestic sphere (2 Tim. 3:6-7). Because the women were still not well trained in the Scriptures, they were most susceptible to the false teachers and could provide a network through which the false teachers could disrupt other homes (1 Tim. 5:13; cf. 1 Tim. 3:11). Given Roman society’s perception of Christians as a subversive cult, false teaching that undermined Paul’s strategies for the church’s public witness could not be permitted.
5) The cultural-historical and theological assumptions of 1 Tim. 2:8-15 are anachronistic and opaque. First, this text includes specific cultural applications which are clearly out-of-date with basic western societies. For example, who today is opposed to women braiding their hair (v. 9) or wearing gold jewelry, pearls, or “expensive” clothes (v. 9)? The cultural assumption of “subordination” of wives to husbands (vv. 10-11) is also far from a universal assumption in western democracies. While the principle of expressing “proper reverence for God” (v. 10) remains normative, the specific ways in which this principle is to be applied have changed. In addition, given the plethora of data in nature that support the theory of the evolution of human beings, is it really possible any longer to maintain with theological integrity that a man (“Adam”) was created “first” and a woman (“Eve”) created “second?” Has not this traditional view been overturned by physical data and contemporary scientific investigation of nature and natural history, in a manner similar to what has taken place in the interpretation of those biblical texts that imply and support a Ptolemaic, geocentric understanding of the universe? Even if one could still maintain today a reading of Genesis 2-3 as “historical report,” a view that is increasingly problematic on both textual/genre grounds and scientific grounds, Paul states clearly in Romans 5 that sin came into the world through one man (Adam), not through a woman (Eve). Women are just as prone to temptation and sin as men, and thus the Adam and Eve story cannot be used to imply that somehow women are more easily tempted into sin (which is the apparent reason why 1 Tim. 2:12 states they cannot serve as teachers of the word to men). Finally, v. 15 is among the most difficult of biblical texts to reconcile with the gospel of justification by faith alone, the central teaching of the New Testament. While the verse probably is a response to the rejection of marriage by the false teachers (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3), the implication of a literal reading of this passage is that women are to do something (namely, bear children) to be saved (provided they continue in faith, love, and holiness). Thus, theologically, the text is at odds with clear teaching in the central texts of the New Testament.
6) One cannot move easily from Paul’s and Peter’s social ethics to an everlasting rule on the subordination of women, a rule often formulated by people who have their own social agenda.
In the Ephesian Haustafeln and elsewhere Paul does not develop an ethical doctrine unrelated to the specific problems of his times. He addresses himself to a specific situation with which he was acquainted through personal experience and hearsay. All Pauline epistles are pastoral epistles which take up and answer specific problems, rather than tracts pronouncing timeless verities and abstract principles. What is known about the problems of married couples in congregations founded or addressed by Paul?
Since the “household duties” (Haustafeln) concern ethical instructions for Christian husbands and wives (and slaves and masters!), how do they relate to the teaching of theology in a university or seminary of the church? The cultural distance between Paul’s application here and our own contemporary setting is striking. Who today will use these texts (1 Timothy 2:8-15 [Genesis 2:18, 21-23; 3:1-7]; Titus 2:3-5; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1-6), and their accompanying ethical instructions, as faithful Christians have done in the past, to sanction the divine right of kings, feudalism, the institution of slavery, the subordination of African people as an “order of creation,” segregation, male-only voting, political dictatorships? Who today will use these texts, as faithful Christians have done in the past, to criticize democratic republicanism, the American Revolution, the Abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights movement, women’s suffrage, women parochial school teachers, women in the work-force, and child-labor laws? Who today will use 1 Corinthian 11 to criticize men with long hair and women with uncovered, braided, or short hair, even though Paul argues that “the very nature of things teaches us” these hair styles are contrary to the practice of “the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:13-16)? In 1 Cor. 14, Paul insists that wives are not to interrupt (the pastor?) with questions but should ask their husbands at home. Is there any congregation in the LCMS that will practice this rule today, say at an adult Bible class or in the congregational choir? No unmarried woman in any (?) Lutheran congregation is going to be told to go and get her answers from one of the older women in the congregation (as occurred in some early Christian communities; cf. Titus 2:3-4) or from one of her married friends who would be in a position to ask her husband for the answer at home and then return with that answer.
John Reumann, reminds us that:
In place of the obvious “subordination” patterns which appear in the New Testament, the church has long since transcended that of “Jew and Gentile,” and more recently “slave and free.” We have learned centuries ago not to take the subordination of Christ expressed in such passages as 1 Cor. 11:3 or 15:28 ontologically, and more recently we have, as Christians, acknowledged, in various ways, the rights of people and individual conscience against the state and even against church government. Now, can we transcend the even longer patterns (which similarly have appeared in the Bible and all our traditions) regarding the subordination of women?
II. Other Scriptural Texts that Relate to the Practice of Women Theologians
The meaning of the traditional proof texts in question becomes even more ambiguous when one turns to examine the biblical evidence which supports the proposition that a woman may teach theology in a university or seminary of the church. Is there any biblical evidence that women taught in Christian churches? Those who are quick to quote the above “proof texts” often neglect to address the biblical evidence that women were involved in teaching the faith to others, including men.
1) In contrast to Jewish tradition, women figure prominently in the ministry of Jesus. They are included among the disciples and are witnesses to his teaching and his resurrection (“Go and tell my brothers,” Matthew 28:10; cf. John 20:17). In the Gospel according to Luke, Mary sits in the posture of a rabbinical student, listening to what Jesus said (Luke 10:38-42, a passage not listed in the 1985 CTCR report, “Women in the Church,”; cf. Luke 7:36-50; 8:1-3, 42-48; 13:10-17; Mark 5:25-30). This woman, Mary, is commended, not silenced. In the Gospel according to John, the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-30) not only speaks with Jesus, she goes to the Samaritans who, John reports, believe in Christ “because of the woman’s testimony” (4:39). The Samaritan men believed because of the woman’s witness. Matthew 15:21-28 reports that Jesus conversed with a Canaanite woman, the first Gentile convert. Mary Magdalene not only is the first to see the risen Jesus, but she tells the good news to his other disciples (John 20:17-18). In the ministry and preaching of Jesus, women and men are equally invited to full participation in the Kingdom (Matt. 12:49-50). Jesus treated women with attention and respect.
2) Paul claims the apostolic right to involve a wife in the apostolic work (1 Cor. 9:5), even though, of course, he did not choose to act on this right. He did, however, acknowledge that other apostles involved their wives in their apostolic work. In general, we may conclude with the assessment of Meeks: “The role of women in the Pauline movement is much greater and much more nearly equal to that of men than in contemporary Judaism.”
There were women who headed households, who ran businesses and had independent wealth, who traveled with their own slaves and helpers. Some who are married have become converts to this exclusive religious cult without the consent of their husbands (1 Cor. 7:13), and they may, though Paul advises against it, initiate divorce… Moreover, women have taken on some of the same roles as men within the sect itself. Some exercise charismatic functions like prayer and prophesy in the congregation (1 Cor. 11:2-16); others, as we have seen in our prosopography, are Paul’s fellow workers as evangelists and teachers. Both in terms of their position in the larger society and in terms of their participation in the Christian communities, then, a number of women broke through the normal expectations of female roles.
Clearly, Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 (“In Christ there is neither male nor female”) authorized a new spiritual equality that seems to imply social equality. Such equality may have been encouraged also by a heightened apocalyptic outlook which held that the present creation—and its customary social arrangements—was soon to give way completely to “the new creation.”
3) While Paul speaks of the spontaneous graces of the Holy Spirit, which God pours out on the whole body of Christ—men and women (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12)—he also speaks of leaders and “fellow-workers” (men and women) whose responsibility is “to lead in the Lord” and “to admonish” and “teach” the Christian community (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Cor. 16:16; Romans 12:8). Paul laid the foundation (1 Cor. 3:10); the fellow-workers built upon it, but they therefore also shared in apostolic authority and privilege which Paul claims for himself on the basis of the word of the Lord (see especially 1 Cor. 9:6, 11ff; 1 Thess. 5:12-14; 1 Cor. 16:10-12).
Paul gives special place to prophesying and teaching: “And God has appointed in the church all kinds of people, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers” (1 Cor. 12:28; see also Romans 12:6-8); Eph. 4:7-13: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it…It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, in order to prepare God’s people for works of ministry, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:7-13).
congregations had leaders and teachers, and these leaders and teachers were both
men and women: Priscilla and
It is beyond dispute in the Christian church, that the woman, as a Christian, can lay claim to the selfsame opportunities for the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments which are open and available to every other member of the church as we have described them above. The woman is not a member of the congregation with lesser rank. In regard to the reception of the Holy Ghost and his gifts the woman, as woman, is in no way prejudiced against, since she is just as much a member of the body of Christ as is the man.
In addition to these women, and the women implied in 1 Corinthians 11:5 (cf.
also Acts 1:14; 2:17-18; 21:9), there is the example of Priscilla who, along
with her husband, “explained to Apollos the way of God more adequately” (Acts
18:26). The word translated as
“explained” is exethento, from
ektithemi (literally: “to expose,”
“to abandon” but, in this context, “to explain,” “to set forth,” “to expound”).
This verb is used only three times in the New Testament, all in Acts.
In addition to Acts 18:26, Peter “explained
to them in order” the details of his vision (Acts 11:4).
In Acts 28:23 Paul “expounded
the matter to them from morning till evening, testifying to the
5) In Romans 16:1, Paul calls Phoebe a “deacon” (diakonos). There is ambiguity in this term. Was she just a “servant” (so the CTCR and Luke Timothy Johnson) or did she serve in a capacity close to that described in 1 Timothy 3? There is no certainty on the matter, but it is interesting that the deacon’s code of 1 Timothy contains a digression which speaks of “women”: “In the same way, women must be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (1 Tim. 3:11). Are these women the wives of the deacons or are they deacons themselves? The question cannot be answered with certainty. Dibelius and Conzelmann suggest that the author might be writing of “the deaconesses before he mentions (in v. 12) those duties which apply only to male deacons. The uncertainty of the interpretation is perhaps connected with the fact that the author did not sufficiently modify the traditional list of duties, so that the application to Christian circumstances did not become completely clear.” In Romans 16, Paul speaks of a number of women as his “co-workers” (synergoi). Paul uses this term elsewhere to say that he and his co-workers do not “peddle or falsify the word of God” (2 Cor. 2:7; 4:2). Did these women “co-workers” teach, as did Priscilla? We cannot answer for sure, especially in view of 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 and 1 Tim. 2:11-16, but neither can we conclude that 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 and 1 Tim. 2:11-16 settle the question decisively. Even the 1985 CTCR document, “Women in the Church,” concludes that women taught men in early Christianity:
The early Christian churches followed the pattern established by Jesus of including women as integral members. They attended worship, participated vocally, were instructed, learned of the faith, and shared it with others. They also played a significant role in the life of the community, teaching men and women and caring for those in need.
6) In Romans 16:7 Paul commends Junia (Junias) as one who is “outstanding among the apostles.” The editor’s notes in the Concordia Self-Study Bible are instructive at this point. The LCMS editor, Robert Hoerber, agrees that Junias is a feminine name. Though there are some who try to argue that this may be a masculine name, a significant number of interpreters agree with Hoerber. He indicates that two interpretations have been given for this verse:
“Apostles” is used in a wider sense than the Twelve—to include preachers of the gospel recognized by the churches (see Ac 14:4, 14; 1 Th 2:7). 2) “Apostles” is preceded by the definite article, which may indicate that the Twelve are in view. In this case, the meaning would be that these two persons [Andronicus and Junias] were outstanding “in the opinion of” the apostles. The previous view seems preferable, since it is based on an accurate rendering of the Greek. The presence of the definite article is not decisive, as it is present also in Ac 14:4, 14.
According to this editorial notation, made by an LCMS theologian, in a Bible published by CPH, the same publishing house that published commentaries by Toppe and Schuetze, Junias was “a preacher of the gospel recognized by the churches.”
7) There are some New Testament passages which indicate that all Christians have the responsibility to teach and admonish one another. “A disciple is not above the Teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the Teacher” (Luke 6:40 and par.). Paul commends all of the Roman Christians because “they are filled with all knowledge and are able to instruct (nouthetein) one another” (Romans 15:14). Romans 12:7 (“he who teaches, in his teaching”) does not appear to be directed only to men but to the various members in the one body of Christ to whom that responsibility is given. The same is true for 1 Cor. 12:27-31 (“first apostles, second prophets, third teachers”), especially when one considers that Paul acknowledges female “prophets” in the same letter (1 Cor. 11:5). Paul also encourages all of the Colossian Christians to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach (didaskontes) and admonish (nouthetountes) one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Hebrews 5:12 suggests that the author thought all Christians addressed in his letter “ought to be teachers” (didaskaloi), though he laments that they still need someone “to teach you again the first principles of God’s word.”
III. Additional Hermeneutical, Dogmatic, and Sociological Considerations
1) A Lutheran approach to Scripture and practice (hermeneutics) is always guided by the question, “What is the meaning of a doctrine or practice in relation to ‘the doctrine of the gospel’ and ‘the freedom of the gospel?’” Elert puts the matter succinctly in his classic text on the “morphology” of Lutheranism:
For the knowledge that the Law does not apply to the believer as a believer is one of the fundamental postulates of the impact of the Gospel (evangelischer Ansatz). But since this decision cannot be understood as an arbitrary choice but is made by God Himself in what He says in the Gospel concerning the believing sinner, the evangelical content of Scripture continues to have for the believer an authority with which its legal content can no longer interfere. Even though many problems are still awaiting settlement here, nevertheless, according to this, an indiscriminate authority of Scripture completely in conformity in all details is out of the question… Scripture is not a codex from which one gets church doctrine merely by quoting… A mere string of statements from Scripture does not yet guard against vagaries—it is even sure to lead to vagaries if the Gospel’s point of emphasis and reference is not found and preserved. But it must be the task of church doctrine to find the central point of the Gospel.
All Christians will agree that the biblical data that address the issue of women teachers of theology need careful interpretation. “Proof-texting” as a theological method is insufficient, for it does not reckon with the ambiguity of texts and historical contexts, nor does it faithfully show how particular texts are related to the truth of the gospel. One can quote Holy Scripture as copiously as one wants and still not teach the gospel or true doctrine. Some in the church try to argue that women cannot serve in any office that places them in (spiritual) authority over men. That argument, however, is solely based on a few biblical passages, often cited out of context and insufficiently related to the rest of Scripture and to the truth of the gospel.
2) Does not Galatians 5:1, 13-15 also have a bearing on how we are to interpret and apply the biblical texts that are relevant to the question of women teachers of theology? Clearly, the Lutheran Confessions observe the important distinction between “abiding principle” and “changing application”:
For the chief article of the gospel must be maintained, that we obtain the grace of God through faith in Christ without our merit and do not earn it through service of God instituted by human beings. How, then, should Sunday and other similar church ordinances and ceremonies be regarded? Our people reply that bishops or pastors may make regulations for the sake of good order in the church, but not thereby to obtain God’s grace, to make satisfaction for sin, or to bind consciences, nor regard such as a service of God or to consider it a sin when these rules are broken without giving offense. So St. Paul prescribed in Corinthians that women should cover their heads in the assembly, and that preachers in the assembly should not all speak at once, but in order, one after the other. Such regulation belongs rightfully in the Christian assembly for the sake of love and peace, to be obedient to bishops and pastors in such cases, and to keep such order to the extent that no one offends another—so that there may not be disorder or unruly conduct in the church. However, consciences should not be burdened by holding that such things are necessary for salvation or by considering it a sin when they are violated without giving offense to others; just as no one would say that a woman commits a sin if, without offending people, she leaves the house with her head uncovered…” 
According to this same article in the Augsburg Confession:
The apostles directed that one should abstain from blood and from what is strangled. But who observes this now? Yet those who do not observe it commit no sin. For the apostles themselves did not want to burden consciences with such bondage, but prohibited such eating for a time to avoid offense. For in this ordinance one must pay attention to the chief part of Christian doctrine which is not abolished by this decree [i.e., Acts 15:23-29].
“Abiding principles” here include the need for “good order” in the church, the distinction between the gospel and human rules and customs (even apostolic rules/customs, such as the avoidance of blood, meat from strangled animals, and food offered to idols!), Christian freedom, and love and peace within the Christian community. At least according to the evangelical confessors, even apostolic mandates may be set aside and considered non-binding, if their cultural “baggage” no longer is applicable in a new and different cultural setting. Just because something is taught or even commanded in Scripture does not mean that that teaching or command is normative for contemporary evangelical practice. Other factors come into play as well, and these other factors may override the specific scriptural mandate. Attention must be given to the change of situation that has taken place between a first-century Mediterranean setting and that of a twenty-first-century American or European cultural setting.
3) Jesus’ words to his disciples in Mark 10 undercut a notion of “authority” based on any “order of creation”: “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
4) Several biblical texts (e.g., Gen 1:26-27; Rom. 5; Gal. 3:28, etc.) and a majority of contemporary westerners affirm the full equality of men and women. While clearly men and women are biologically different, their ontological status as “full human beings” is no longer in doubt (as it was among some in the early and medieval church). No longer do Christian theologians debate whether or not women truly bear “the image of God,” as was debated in the days of Aquinas. No longer do a majority of western men normally complain if a woman serves as a secular judge or in some secular position of authority. To deny this ontological-social equality of men and women or to deny the full humanity of women (as often occurs in theologies of subordination) is to undermine the integrity of the church in its mission in western cultures.
5) The Donatist
controversy in the early church also relates to the issue of women teaching
theology in a university or seminary.
Donatus, bishop in
In opposition to the
Donatists, early church councils at
True, neither the Donatists nor the catholics allowed women to serve as priests or theologians, however, one may legitimately extend the rejection of Donatism to include the rejection of a position which holds that the ontology of women precludes them from being valid and efficacious teachers of God’s word or pastors in Christ's church. Those who insist that women may not teach the Word to men or administer the sacraments and undertake other distinctive duties of the pastoral office are bound to include as an element in their argument a contemporary form of Donatism, since elements in their argument direct people to the inferior, or at least subordinate, “being” of women. Without the “being” of men, the orderly teaching of God’s word remains invalid (ineffective?). Such a view is guilty of putting unnecessary restrictions on the power and efficacy of Christ’s living Word.
IV. Church History Considerations
Those who argue against female theologians also border on being sectarian, since even the western catholic tradition recognizes the legitimate role of women theologians in the life of the church.
1) In the Shepherd of Hermas, a late-first century/early second-century text that was treated as sacred Scripture in some places in the second and third centuries (and included in the Codex Sinaiticus), or at least as a valuable text (as in the Muratorian Canon), a woman is depicted as the principal revealer and teacher of Hermas. As Osiek notes, this female guide has no true precedent in Western literature. “She encourages, cajoles, reproves, and loses her patience. Her revelations continue for some time even after she is identified as the church… She interprets to Hermas the vision of the tower as it is being built… Thus, she interprets herself…” The Shepherd of Hermas also makes reference to Grapte, a female literate church leader who is responsible for instruction of widows and children, but also Rhoda, who becomes the teacher of Hermas. Included in the text are twelve virgins, who stand guard at the gate of the tower and later participate in its construction. In one scene, the virgins spend the night with Hermas, dance, pray, and “dine on the words of the Lord” (9:10-11). Clearly, female persons and feminine imagery play a major role in this important text.
2) While the fourth-century Constitutions of the Holy Apostles explicitly forbids women to teach (“because it is unseemly”), there is evidence that women indirectly taught men and women in the early church. The female deaconate was a very important office in the eastern church (and in the west after the fifth century). This office is described in many documents from the early church. Such women had a broad range of responsibilities, including teaching women catechumens, rebuking those women who strayed from the church, visiting the sick, anointing women who were baptized.
The second-century Gospel of Mary, one of the so-called “Gnostic gospels,” though it contains false teaching about the person of Jesus, nonetheless describes for its audience a supposed conflict among Jesus’ disciples over the teaching role of Mary Magdalene. This gospel asserts that after Jesus’ Ascension, Mary Magdalene undertook to clarify Jesus’ teaching by revealing to them some private revelations he had made to her. This gospel is further evidence (alongside Montanism) that some who called themselves “Christian” in the second century accepted the teaching authority of women. Such acceptance had a negative result for women, however, in the development of orthodoxy: “The association of women in leadership roles with communities labeled ‘heretical’ meant that one obvious way for incarnationist Christians to differentiate themselves from rival groups was to proscribe leadership by women.”
The African martyr Perpetua (d. 203) left a remarkable written record of the experience of martyrdom in the early church. Her work, which was possibly edited by Tertullian and widely studied and read throughout the early church, represents the earliest known piece of Christian literature written by a woman. “In her visions, as well as in those of Saturus, Perpetua is also raised to a position of spiritual authority over male clergy who were beginning to emerge as a powerful force in the church.”
Probo wrote her Cento sometime around A.D. 351. It “represents a challenge to the exclusion of women from the creation of a Christian theological tradition. In her own way, Probo was attempting to do what the church fathers were doing: interpret Jesus to the Greco-Roman world in familiar thought patterns.”
Another Christian woman who had a significant effect on the church through her writing was Egeria (4th century?). The account of her pilgrimage to the holy places of Christianity, The Travels of Egeria, led many Christians to conduct their own pilgrimages.
3) Several apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts also indicate women taught the word in the early church. As the 1985 CTCR report on “Women in the Church” acknowledges:
Acts of Paul (c. 170) tells of Thecla,
who was commissioned by Paul to “go and teach” and who is depicted as
teaching both men and women.
The Acts of Peter mentions
Candida, who instructed her husband in the faith.
The Acts of Philip reports
that Jesus sent out Mariamne with Philip and Bartholomew.
One tradition makes Mary and Martha, together with Lazarus, missionaries
to the Province (southeastern France).
St. Nina is honored as the missionary who converted
4) “Mainstream” catholic tradition also indicates the presence of significant women teachers of orthodox theology, despite the medieval male prejudice that women are “naturally” inferior to men (e.g., in the theology of Thomas Aquinas). Monasteries for women were headed by women, giving these women an opportunity to exercise authority and leadership within the institutional structure of the church. The list of these women is long and it begins with individuals such as Paula (347-404), the associate of Jerome, who founded a convent of monks and another of nuns. While the normal practice forbade these medieval abbesses from administering the sacraments, there were some exceptional circumstances in which the abbesses could celebrate the Eucharist and they were given the same signs of high office given to a bishop: a ring, a mitre, a crozier. These abbesses gave spiritual guidance, also to men, and some of them also heard confession and pronounced absolution.
The ascetic life
gave many women the opportunity to study and it rewarded them for intellectual
achievement. “The monastic vocation
was as much for women as for men; indeed, it is often women who may justly claim
the priority as monastic pioneers.”
Melanie the Elder (342-410) and Melanie the Younger (383-438) acquired
formidable theological educations and were responsible for the administration of
Melanie the Younger debated doctrine, and taught an array of men and
women, including the emperor Theodosius.
Marcella (325-410) became an expert on the Bible and theology in
5) The female
mystics, notably Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-82), Julian of Norwich
(1342-1416), Catharine of Siena (1347-1380) and, later, Teresa of Avila
(1515-1582) had a tremendous influence on the spiritual and theological life of
the church. Two of these women,
Catharine and Teresa (along with Therese of Lisieux [1873-97]), are officially
recognized as “Doctors of the Church” by the Roman Catholic Church.
These women theologians are regarded as figures of authority within this
church body (though they were also frequently criticized and persecuted by many
of their contemporary clerics).
Catharine of Siena was able to persuade the pope to move back to
6) In the modern period, of course, many more women have studied theology and taught theology and have served as pastors. Protestant women were active in helping the church reforms of Luther and Calvin by means of theological analysis and writing (e.g. Katharine Zell, Argula von Grumbach). Later, John Wesley allowed women a significant role to exercise their talents in teaching the gospel and organizing missions.
In the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, the parson’s wife became an established and influential figure; in the Nonconformist sects women were allowed to lead worship and preach—as Fox said, ‘may not the Spirit of Christ speak in the female as in the male?’ In the Roman church, they took over the expanding education for girls and the work of hospitals; St. Francis de Sales needed Jeanne de Chantal to found the order of the Visitation, and St Vincent de Paul need Louise de Marillac to establish the Sisters of Charity.
Many Christian women were active in antislavery movements and this activity, in turn, motivated many of them to work for the full equality of women in church and society. Women organized missionary societies, served as deaconesses, taught as theological scholars, served as missionaries, taught as day-school teachers of religion.
7) Even the Roman
Catholic Church, which does not ordain women to the priesthood, recognizes that
women may serve as theological educators in parochial schools, seminaries and
universities of the church. Perhaps
the most famous example is Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), the first person
born in the
The 1976 Roman
Catholic “Consultation on the Role of Orthodox Women in the Church and in
Society,” held in
8) Since the 1960’s,
changes in the roles and responsibilities of women in all of the mainstream
Christian churches have also occurred. Many of the largest Protestant church
bodies freely ordain women, as does the
That the issue is not unique to the LCMS is evident in a recent Christian Century article by former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter. He, too, is concerned about the inroads of inappropriate exegesis and application among his fellow Baptists:
It is inconceivable to me that Paul can be quoted by modern male chauvinists as the biblical authority for excluding women from accepting God’s call to serve others in the name of Christ, when Paul himself encouraged and congratulated inspired women who were prominent—to use his own descriptions—as deacons, apostles, ministers and saints. Paul’s clear theological message to the Galatians and to us is that women are to be treated exactly as equals in their right to serve God… (Gal. 3:26-28).
V. Concluding Theses
2. This one Lord of the church "came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).
3. The one gospel of the church is the good news which announces that through Jesus, his ministry, his death and resurrection, people receive forgiveness of their sins, life, and salvation.
4. This gospel alone gives freedom from sins, freedom from God's condemning law, freedom from the curse of death, freedom from humanly-designed religious traditions and customs (Gal. 5:1).
5. This gospel breaks down the sin-created dividing walls of hostility which separate the sinner from God, the sexes from each other, the races of people from one another, the Jew from the Gentile, the slave from the free (Ephesians 2:14; Galatians 3:26-28).
6. Contrary to the values of his own culture and religion, Jesus taught women, rejected legal taboos about women, forgave women, called women to be his disciples, received assistance from women, made women full members of his community, and gave his Spirit to women (John 20).
7. For the sake of unity and for building up the body of Christ, his church, the Lord has given some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some "pastors-teachers" (Eph. 4:11), some teachers, some workers of miracles, some healers, some helpers, administrators, speakers of languages (1 Cor. 12:28f; Romans 12:6f; Eph. 4:11f.).
8. The purpose of the different charismata is "to equip the saints for their work of service, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ… Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, Christ" (Eph. 4:12-15).
9. According to Paul, Luke, and John, women are the recipients of the charismata of the Spirit: Women pray and prophesy in the congregation (Acts 2; 1 Cor. 11), teach the gospel to others (John 4; Acts 18), proclaim the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus to others (John 20), labor for the gospel in the missionary setting of early Christianity (John 4; Romans 16; Acts 18), serve as house-leaders/patronesses of several congregations (Romans 16:2; Acts 16:15).
10. Although women share these gospel freedoms and responsibilities with the other disciples and apostles (Romans 16:7), there are a few apparent limitations, but these are isolated and ambiguous, e.g., there is one passage in the New Testament which ambiguously places a few limits on women who were at that time praying and prophesying in a congregation, and there are two passages in the New Testament which ambiguously place limits on women/wives in a congregation.
11. According to the New Testament witness (Acts 18:26; Romans 16; John 4), the early church did not apply the ambiguous statements of 1 Tim. 2:11-14 or 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 to women in every context of the mission of the church.
12. In keeping with the Lutheran confessional procedure of demonstrating how authentic catholic tradition supports a scriptural position, throughout the history of the catholic and orthodox church, qualified women have taught the words of God to men and women in schools and universities and other settings.
13. In the past, members of some churches have used 1 Tim. 2:11-14 and 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 to prohibit women from serving in positions of "authority over men" in society, from voting in congregations, from serving as parochial school teachers, from serving on church boards and commissions, and from serving in any number of other positions of leadership.
14. Despite these previous interpretive decisions some church bodies, e.g., the LCMS, have changed their official positions on these passages in question so as to affirm now that women may vote in congregations, teach the words of God in Sunday schools, in adult Bible classes (e.g., as DCEs), in parochial schools, in evangelism outreach, in catechesis classes, in university and other settings.
15. There is no legitimate biblical or dogmatic rationale for why the LCMS should now prohibit women from serving as theologians and pastors in the church.
The original draft of this essay
was prepared in 1997 to support the effort of the
One cannot avoid the fact that these texts indeed use “subordination” language (e.g., hypotasso). Nevertheless, faithful interpretation is not merely limited to establishing what the texts say; interpretation proceeds to ask the more fundamental questions about what these texts mean, what they mean today, and how they are to be applied in the contemporary setting. The Bible is full of difficult-sounding language on the surface. For example, "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out..." (Matthew 5:29). This biblical text says just these words, and they seem to give a simple command, but what does this apparent command of our Lord mean and how is it to be understood/applied in a contemporary setting? Is the meaning of this text that we are to pluck out our eye when we use our eye to sin? Many have understood the passage to mean just this (and thus not a few people have shown up in hospitals with gouged out eyes!), but a majority of interpreters, taking other biblical texts into account, conclude that the meaning and application of this difficult command are different from what we might call a “surface” or “initial” reading. A contemporary meaning and application might even be different from the original meaning(s).
In past decades these same passages have been used by Christians to argue that women may not vote in congregational assemblies or even serve in civic offices that place them in authority over men. The LCMS has generally moved away from these views, even if it steadfastly insists that women may not serve as pastors and, by extension, may not serve as teachers of biblical doctrine to men.
Carleton Toppe, First Corinthians (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1992), 136-137.
Armin Schuetze, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993), 46-47.
Ibid. This quotation is from Wilbert Gawrisch, Man and Woman in God’s World (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1985), 19-20.
Wayne Meeks, First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 70.
For example, Peter Brunner, “The Ministry and the Ministry of Women,” Lutheran World, Vol. 6, no. 3 (December 1959), 261. Toppe does not address the issue of the relation of 1 Cor. 11:2ff. to 1 Cor. 14:33bff. He simply assumes that both passages are saying the same thing. But Paul does not forbid women to speak in 1 Cor. 11, only that when they do they should follow the customary rules.
For a list of the interpretive
alternatives, see Hans Conzelmann,
1 Corinthians (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1975), 181-191, 240-247.
See also Norman Metzler and Carol Becker, “Men and Women Working
Together in Ministry: Biblical Perspectives,” in
Issues in Christian Education,
vol. 30, no. 1 (Spring 1996), 6-13.
Metzler and Becker support the interpretation that 1 Cor. 11 and
14 are informed by “Jewish worship customs” and rabbinic rules governing
the “Bible study” portion of the service.
While there is some support in the text for such a conclusion
(vv. 7-10, 16), Paul’s principal arguments are not based on Scriptural
midrash (as one might expect if Paul were making a rabbinic argument, as
is made, for example, in 1 Tim. 2:11ff.) but instead from
Hellenistic cultural styles
and practices based on “nature.”
In 1 Cor. 11, Paul offers a kind of
“natural theology” that could be understood by the (majority?) of
non-Jewish and formerly pagan Christians at
See Roy Harrisville, 1 Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 246.
Conzelmann completely dismisses the text. He concludes that 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 is “a self-contained section” that “upsets the context: it interrupts the theme of prophecy and spoils the flow of thought. In content, it is in contradiction to 11:2ff, where active participation of women in the church is presupposed. This contradiction remains even when chaps. 11 and 14 are assigned to different letters. Moreover, there are peculiarities of linguistic usage [e.g., epitrepesthai], and of thought. And finally, v. 37 does not link up with v. 36, but with v. 33a. The section is accordingly to be regarded as an interpolation. Verse 36, which is hardly very clear, is meant to underline the ‘ecumenical’ validity of the interpolation. In this regulation we have a reflection of the bourgeois consolidation of the church, roughly on the level of the Pastoral Epistles: it binds itself to the general custom” (Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 246).
Frederick Danker and Walter
Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of
the New Testament and Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed.
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 228.
Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 191.
Even Toppe admits that Paul’s comments about hair-length and head coverings are based on “custom and propriety”: “A woman’s head covering can express a recognition of the headship God established in creation, but this custom is not the only way in which a woman can acknowledge such headship. She can accept it without observing the custom. It was a custom Paul supported, but this custom was not essential for maintaining the proper role of women. Our Augsburg Confession agrees: ‘…as no one will say that a woman sins who goes out in public with her head uncovered, provided that no offense be given’” (Toppe, 1 Corinthians, 105).
of the Forty-Eighth Regular Convention of The
See “Women in the Church:
Scriptural Principles and Ecclesial Practice,” A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the
Concordia Self-Study Bible (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985), 1852.
See Peter Brunner, The Ministry and the Ministry of Women (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971). See also Peter Brunner, “The Ministry and the Ministry of Women,” Lutheran World, Vol. 6, no. 3 (December 1959), 261-274.
Brunner, “The Ministry and the Ministry of Women,” 272.
The following information on “hypotasso,” is based on the material in Danker-Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Christian Literature, 1042.
One needs to note, however, that in Brunner’s judgment, theologically-trained women may “cooperate in the maintenance of correct doctrine through theological research” (ibid., 274). Unlike the 1985 CTCR document, which relies heavily on Brunner’s argument, Brunner himself admits that women may share in the pastoral responsibility of teaching the word to others. According to Brunner, a theologically-trained woman may also be entrusted with “the Christian instruction of the catechumens, also confirmation instruction, above all the training of groups of members, also introduction to the interpretation of the Scriptures which takes the form of a Bible study.” They may also “assist in the training of other official orders such as catechists, congregational helpers, deacons and deaconesses” (ibid., 273-74). Surely, therefore, Brunner would support the conclusion that theologically-trained and properly called women may “teach theology,” even though he would disagree with a theological argument which supports that women may also serve as pastors.
The following paragraph is based on comments I make in a review essay of Eberhard Bethge’s book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. See Matthew Becker, “A Review Essay of Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, www.day-star.net/bonhoeffer.htm (November 2002).
See Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
Creation and Fall (New York:
Harper and Row, 1966); and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).
See especially Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After 10 Years,” A Testament to Freedom, ed. Geffrey Kelly and E. Burton Nelson (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 483-86; but also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1971).
See Edward Schroeder, “The Orders of Creation—Some Reflections on the History and Place of the Term in Systematic Theology,” Concordia Theological Monthly 43 (March, 1972), 165-178.
See Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957), 77-81.
Schroeder, “The Orders of Creation,” 175.
Schroeder, “The Orders of Creation,” 176. “The natural order is not an order of salvation, but cannot on that account be ignored without plunging existence into fantasy and thus giving nature a power it does not deserve” (Harrisville, 1 Corinthians, 188).
See also C. C. Kroeger, “Head,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph Martin, and Daniel Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 375-77. Kroeger’s summary indicates that Paul’s understanding of kephale is complex and largely dependent upon extra-biblical, pagan assumptions (e.g., Homer, Plato, Aristotle) as well as Philo. “In legal terminology, to have ‘head’ (caput) was to be an integral part of one’s legitimate family. If a person was adopted into another family, that individual lost ‘head.’ In Christ, believers were offered a new head along with their new family, with Christ as head. Paul calls upon his churches to free themselves from familial bondage and to assume moral responsibility for their own behavior, and to establish new households with Christ as head (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:31)” (ibid., 376).
Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, 256-257. Aristotle claimed that the leader of a hive is the king bee (The History of Animals, 8 .40.623b9-10), that women have smaller brains than men (On the Parts of Animals, 2.7.653a28-9), and that the female of the species has fewer teeth than the male (The History of Animals, 2.3.501b19-21). He also claimed "the female is, as it were, a mutilated male" (On the Generation of Animals, 2.3.737a27-8) and that "the female is more dispirited and more despondent than the male, more shameless and more lying, readier to deceive and possessing a better memory for grudges" (History of Animals, 8 .1.608b10-12).
Josephus, Against Apion, II:201.
Self-Study Bible, 1767.
The editorial note for 1 Tim. 2:12-14 in this edition of the Bible is
also instructive: “Some believe that Paul here prohibited teaching only
by women not properly instructed, i.e. by the women at
“Women in the Church,” 34. Though the first two sentences of this quote are clear and convincing, the last two are not so persuasive. On what exegetical foundation do these last two sentences from the CTCR document rest? What was Priscilla doing, if she wasn’t “teaching” Apollos? Did she do this teaching in a “house-church?”
 See Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 150.
P. H. Towner, “The Structure of
the Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles” (unpublished
Ph. D. dissertation, Aberdeen University, 1984), cited in Kevin
Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among
the First Christians (Melbourne: Collins Dove, 1989), 117.
For the situation at
See Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians, 118.
Indeed, in the New Testament as a whole, the title “Teacher” is usually reserved for Jesus alone. Of the 58 times didaskalos occurs in the NT, it is used 41 times to refer to Jesus.
C. S. Keener, “Man and Woman,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 591.
Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1974), 660.
John Reumann, Ministries Examined: Laity, Clergy, Women, and Bishops in a Time of Change (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 263-264. Like Schroeder, Reumann proceeds to argue for the ordination of women to the pastoral office.
Of course, none of the twelve
apostles was a woman, which is a principal argument against the
ordination of women to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
This argument has not been widely used in the history of the
Meeks, First Urban Christians, 81.
For a helpful article on Paul and Women’s Ministry, see C. S. Keener, “Man and Woman,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 583-92 (with bibliography). Keener identifies the following pauline texts as approving of women’s ministry: Romans 16; Philippians 4:2-3; 1 Corinthians 11:5 (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28). “These passages alone establish Paul among the more progressive writers of his culture…” (ibid., 590).
See Edward Schillebeeckx, Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ (New York: Crossroad, 1981).
Brunner, “The Ministry and the Ministry of Women,” 258.
 See Danker, ektithemi, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 310. Contrary to the 1985 CTCR document, “Women in the Church” (35), ektithemi is a “closely related word” to “didaskein,” as the Acts passages indicate. “To expound” is not different from “to teach.”
See “Diakonos” in TDNT, 2:93.
Martin Dibelius and Hans
Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 58.
Johnson agrees with Dibelius and Conzelmann.
Johnson maintains that the women referred to here are “women
helpers,” not “wives of the men helpers/deacons” nor “women in general”
(Luke Timothy Johnson, The First
and Second Letters to Timothy [
“Women in the Church,” 12 (italics added).
The textual tradition is
ambiguous on whether the text should read masculine (circumflex on the
alpha) or feminine (acute on the iota).
The Church Fathers unanimously took the name as feminine, and
treat Junia as a “female apostle.”
The masculine name is otherwise unknown in the ancient
literature. If masculine,
the correct form would be “Junius” or “Junianus.”
“Junia,” however, was a quite common female name.
To argue that “Junia” should really be masculine rests on the
assumption that a woman could not be an apostle, rather than on any
evidence inherent in the text itself.
Perhaps Junia and Andronicus were a wife and husband team,
similar to Priscilla and
Concordia Self-Study Bible, 1741 (italics added).
For a classic instance of this approach, see Luther’s “Prefaces to the Books of the Bible” in LW 35, pp. 235-411.
Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1962), 181-182, 187, 191). See also Edmund Schlink, Theology of the Lutheran Confessions, trans. P. F. Koehneke and H. J. A. Bouman (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), 1-36; Hermann Sasse, “Luther and the Word of God,” in Accents in Luther’s Theology: Essays in Commemoration of the 450th Anniversary of the Reformation, ed. Heino Kadai (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 47-91, esp. 87-88. Though Ralph Bohlmann is critical of Elert’s and Schlink’s “gospel reductionist” hermeneutics (i.e. “using the law-gospel distinction and the doctrine of justification by grace” as “hermeneutical principles of general applicability, or even the dominant hermeneutical principles”), he also emphasizes the centrality of relating each Christian doctrine to the law-gospel distinction and the doctrine of justification. See Ralph Bohlmann, “Confessional Biblical Interpretation: Some Basic Principles” in Studies in Lutheran Hermeneutics, ed. John Reumann in collaboration with Samuel Nafzger and Harold Ditmanson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 189-213. Of special import are theses 4 and 8 of Dr. Bohlmann’s essay. Thesis 4: “God addresses man in law and gospel throughout the Scripture in order to lead him to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The sola scriptura principle focuses on the unfolding of Scripture’s christological content for its soteriological purposes.” Thesis 8: “The law-gospel distinction and the doctrine of justification not only serve to clarify passages dealing with faith and works but are basic presuppositions for the interpretation of all Scripture, without, however, providing general criteria for the correctness or legitimacy of particular exegetical interpretations.” This last thesis recognizes “that the law-gospel distinction and the doctrine of justification are broad presuppositions for the interpretation of all Scripture. The exegete approaches his task, no matter which passage or book he is dealing with, in the expectation that he will hear God speak to him in both law and gospel and that the meaning of all biblical passages, directly or indirectly, sheds light on the great central content and purpose of the Scriptures to make men wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. In this important way these doctrines at the very heart and core of biblical and Lutheran theology have a critical role to play in the task of all biblical interpretation” (ibid., 208; italics added). See also Ralph Bohlmann, Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968).
AC XXVIII in
The Book of
On the Donatist controversy, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 5 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971-88), 1:308ff.
Following Melanchthon’s procedure
in the Apology, which is to
ground a position in the Scriptures and their witness to the gospel but
then to show how that position has been held by theologians in the
history of Christian thought, one may appropriately draw attention to
practices and opinions in the history of the church catholic that
support the thesis of this essay.
The “Excursus on the Service of Women in the
A helpful overview of this history is by Barbara MacHaffie, Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986).
See especially Carolyn Osiek, The Shepherd of Hermas (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1999), which is now the standard critical commentary on this important early Christian text.
“We do not permit our ‘women to
teach in the Church,’ but only to pray and hear those that teach; for
our Master and Lord, Jesus Himself, when He sent us the twelve to make
disciples of the people and of the nations, did nowhere send out women
to preach, although He did not want such” (Constitutions
of the Holy Apostles, 3, vi).
According to Margaret Miles, “On the basis of the evidence, we
can recognize that male leaders considered it essential to their
credibility as leaders to define and establish women’s public and
private roles. Apparently,
Christians did not significantly alter their assumptions about women
from those of their society.
Activities permitted by law and custom to Roman women were
similar to those allowed Christian women.
In different geographical and temporal settings, Christianity
both undermined and subverted and
strengthened traditional attitudes toward women.
The Platonist Celsus, writing about 178, accused Christians of
subverting social conventions” (Margaret Miles,
The Word Made Flesh: A History of
Christian Thought [
Miles, The Word Made Flesh, 56.
MacHaffie, Her Story, 35. Tertullian himself, referring to 1 Cor. 14:35 once remarked, “How very likely that he who consistently refused to allow a woman even to learn should have granted a female authority to teach” (De baptismo 17). He insisted, “A woman may not speak nor baptize, or offer the Eucharist, nor claim the right to any masculine function, still less to the priestly office” (De virginibus velandis 9). Was Tertullian not aware of the Lukan reports that Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and that Priscilla “expounded doctrine?” Perhaps he was unfamiliar with John’s account of the Samaritan woman. Does the fact that Tertullian later became a Montanist suggest he adjusted his view toward female preachers?
MacHaffie, Her Story, 40.
See Tim Dowley, ed., The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion, 1977), 154.
“Women in the Church,” 15.
Aquinas (1224/5-74), who was influenced by Aristotle’s understanding of women, taught that “woman” is a created being who simultaneously lacks rationality and full embodiment, since “woman” was created after and derived from “man” and because women “lack” male genitals. See Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 207ff. “If evil is a falling away from full being and woman is a falling away from normative [male] being, then ‘woman’ is inevitably associated with evil, a conclusion Thomas believed to be scripturally supported by Eve’s initiation of sin in the world” (Miles, The Word Made Flesh, 172-73).
John McManners, ed.,
See ibid., 135.
MacHaffie, Her Story, 48.
Jaroslav Pelikan indicates that Macrina should rightfully be called “the fourth Cappadocian.” Cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 8-9.
Chrysostom, however, did think highly of women who donated their wealth to the church!
According to Pelikan, a person could find no better text than this one for gaining a comprehensive introduction to Eastern Orthodox theology and spirituality.
See especially Bernard McGinn, The Doctors of the Church: Thirty-Three Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity (New York: Crossroad Publishing House, 1999). The three female “doctors of the church” “were all members of the laity, nonordained believers who were neither trained to teach nor formally recognized as teachers in their own time. (Indeed, each experienced opposition to her teaching, often from the ordained ecclesiastics of the day.) This fact demonstrates that while the recognition of someone as a doctor of the church is an act of ecclesiastical authority from above, so to speak (by pope or, as we shall see, possibly by an ecumenical council), the charism or grace that constitutes a person as a doctor arises from within, that is, from the gift of the Holy Spirit, the teacher of all Christ’s followers. This position was clearly expressed by Pope Paul VI in the homily he delivered in 1970 declaring Teresa of Avila as the first woman doctor” (ibid., 3). McGinn analyzes the complex meaning of the term, “doctor of the church,” though he stresses its primary meaning is “authoritative teacher.”
Dowley, The History of Christianity, 424.
MacHaffie, Her Story, 60.
For a summary of this history, see Ann Carr, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988); Howard Clark Kee, et al., Christianity: A Social and Cultural History (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 742-45; Miles, “Sixteenth-century Women,” in The Word Made Flesh, 292-300; and James Livingston et al., Modern Christian Thought, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000), 2:417-442. For a challenging “post-Christian” account of Christian feminism, see Daphne Hampson, Theology and Feminism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1990).
See MacHaffie, Her Story, 100-102. One outstanding example is Dorothy Day (1897-1980), who directed the Catholic Worker movement for almost 50 years. Because of her writings, her leadership, her life’s example, she will probably be remembered as the most significant and interesting American Catholic of the 20th Century (at least according to Martin Marty). One also thinks of the intellectual influence that many Christian women have had on the church and the world in the 20th Century.
For this history, see McManners, The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, 380-383.
Kee, et. al., Christianity, 676.
The issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood was not considered seriously by the consultation. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has made it clear since the late 1960’s that women’s ordination to the priesthood is non-negotiable. The basic reason given is that Jesus had only male apostles.
Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” 1976: “The Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.”
Metzler’s and Becker’s article, indeed all of the articles in that particular issue of Issues in Christian Education, presume that the LCMS has changed considerably regarding the role of women in the church since the 1960’s. There is now the need for men and women to work together as leaders in the church. The CTCR document, “Women in the Church,” and the report of the LCMS Commission on Women in the Church are other pieces of evidence which document the changes regarding women in the church which have taken place in the Synod since its founding in 1847.
Jimmy Carter, “Back to Fundamentals,” Christian Century (Sep 20, 2005), 35.
This set of theses, here slightly revised, was originally written by the author and then later submitted by the Board of Directors of the Northwest District of the LCMS as an official overture to the 2004 LCMS Convention. The floor committee that was responsible for addressing itself to this overture did not bring the overture before that Convention but instead submitted it to the LCMS CTCR.