Informal Reflections on Women Pastors and Theologians

By Matthew Becker

Those few Christians from previous centuries who appealed to Scripture to argue against the institution of slavery in Britain and the United States, and who opposed racial inequality, faced a difficult challenge. After all, there are few biblical texts that oppose slavery or that support liberal, egalitarian principles, and there are many passages that explicitly condone slavery and give clear directions to both Christian slaves and masters. Those who defended institutional slavery in the United States and later the ideology of “separate-but-equal” could rather easily interpret the Scriptures to support their view that God’s “order of creation” means that some people are subordinate to others in that created order. Only in the wake of cultural changes resulting from the Civil War and then later the civil rights movement did attitudes about such an “order of creation” change in the U. S. The exhortations to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6:5-8 and Colossians 3:22ff. are hardly understood and applied today in the same way that they were understood and applied by a majority of American Christians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Times change, and the church has frequently had to adapt itself to those changes, if it was not already involved in the movement for change in the first place.

The twenty-first-century Christian who argues against the conservative Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) position that maintains the institution of a male-only pastorate and the “separate-but-equal” ideology that prohibits women from serving in the pastoral office also faces a difficult challenge. After all, there are few biblical texts that support liberal, egalitarian principles, and there are several passages that explicitly exhort women to be subordinate to men. The passages in question are well-known: First Corinthians 11:2-16; First Corinthians 14:33b-38; First Timothy 2:9-15 (Genesis 2:18, 21-23; 3:1-7, and Genesis 3:16); and Titus 2:3-5 (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; First Peter 3:1-6). Those who defend a male-only pastorate can rather easily appeal to these biblical texts to support their notion that God’s “order of creation” means that women are subordinate to men in that created order. In this “order” men and women are “equal” before God through Christ but “separate” when it comes to the distinct roles that God has assigned them in creation. The “order of creation” or the “headship structure of creation,” supposedly established in Genesis 2, is a permanent “order” or “ordering” of the Creator until the Last Day. This ordering means that women cannot serve in the pastoral office because such service would put them in a position of authority over men. The pastoral office is thus as off-limits to women as a “whites-only” lunch counter was to Black people in Jim-Crow America.

On further thought, perhaps those few Christian abolitionists in the nineteenth century had a much more difficult task than the twenty-first-century Christian who argues for the freedom and responsibility of qualified women to serve as pastors and theologians in the church. About all the Christian abolitionist could do was to appeal to Galatians 3:26-29: “…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Such an abolitionist could also appeal to the Exodus story and to Jesus’ and the prophets’ statements about the rich and the poor. But the abolitionists faced an uphill struggle in light of those texts of Scripture that reflect a positive view toward slavery and that give clear instructions to slaves who are to be subordinate to masters. Not surprising, some abolitionists rejected the Christian faith altogether because they could no longer reconcile themselves to the Bible’s teachings about slavery.

While some feminists have also given up on the Christian churches and faith for parallel reasons, others have struggled onward in their churches, convinced that there is greater ambiguity in the Scriptures about the relationship between men and women than there is about the one between slaves and masters and that the cause of gender equality is just as consequential to the gospel as the cause of racial equality. Like many Christian abolitionists of former times, these more recent Christian abolitionists contend that the gospel of Jesus Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit do away with the law of a male-only pastorate and allow qualified people to serve as pastoral leaders in the church regardless of their sex or gender. While these twenty-first- century abolitionists will also appeal to Galatians 3:26ff., they have so many more passages to draw upon for support of their position, many more than those who opposed slavery and segregation. Not only do the Scriptures contain many more positive statements and examples of women serving as ministerial leaders, but the wider western culture has itself changed dramatically since the nineteenth century to support more generally the egalitarian principle of gender equality between men and women. The argument for women pastors and theologians is thus probably easier to make in the twenty-first century than those rare Christian arguments for the abolition of slavery that were made in ante-bellum America.

Why should the requirement of a male-only pastorate be abolished? Why should qualified women be allowed to serve as pastors and theologians in the church? Among the many reasons that could be given, the following seem to be most persuasive:

(1) The “order of creation” argument that has often been made in the LCMS to support a male-only pastorate is not persuasive.

(a) Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both male and female into one, and has broken down the dividing wall. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. And through him both men and women have access in one Spirit to the Father. So both men and women are citizens with the saints and equal members of the one household of God. (This paragraph is, of course, based on a slight paraphrase of the argument of Ephesians 2.)

(b) Those who argue that Genesis 2-3 means that women are subordinate to men as an abiding “order of creation” do not fully appreciate that the gospel of Jesus has crossed out this historic subordination of women to men and opened up a new order for life in the church. The reality of subordination, the Creator’s law and judgment of women’s subordination to men, has been overcome, and has itself been “subordinated” to the new reality of mutual service and equality in the lives of those who live by faith in Christ. The new creation that has dawned in Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the gifts of the Holy Spirit that come with this new creation positively impact the ordering of the church and its ministry. Even First 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 recognized the ambiguity in the notion of “head” (kephale) or “subordination” when he reminded 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” (First Corinthians 11:11-13). “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

(c) The Creator’s “orders of preservation,” to use the language of the Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), are historical structures and relationships that order and shape individual responsibilities within the church and society, but one needs to stress that precisely because these are social and historical in nature, they are subject to the Creator’s law of historical change. Thus, patterns of relationships within the “orders” are subject to change from one age to another. While in the apostles’ day, such orderings included distinct responsibilities of “slave” to “master,” and vice versa, and of “male” to “female,” and vice versa, these orderings have been shaped by egalitarian principles in modern western societies. The equality between men and women in society and in the church is the result of the gospel’s impact on the ordering of men and women in society. One could make a case that the dynamic structure in which men and women relate historically has itself been affected positively by the gospel’s promise and effects.

(d) 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).

(e) Those biblical texts that imply the subordination of women to men are the result of an influence of Aristotle on a pattern of patriarchy found in Hellenistic Judaism that had been adopted by some early Christians but was not normative in all places or for later times. While traditional Judaism and some early Christian writings view the inferior ontology of women as obvious, this was not the dominant view in early Christianity, especially in the Johannine and Pauline communities that stressed the Christian mandate to love as Christ loves and that subordinated traditional patterns of female-male relationships on the basis of power and authority to a pattern that was based on Christian love and the dynamic working of the Holy Spirit to equip both men and women for ministry. In this later view, great importance is put upon mutual service under Christ. 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” (Galatians 3:28).

(f) Those men who argue for a male-only pastorate on the basis of a supposed “order of creation” come across as self-serving since they desire to keep women in their proper place, that is, under the authority of men. This “order of creation” argument seems no different in form from that of white slave-owners and their white clergy who defended slavery as an “order of creation.” This order served their economic and personal interests. “Order of creation” arguments, based on isolated proof-texting, have been used by Christians in the past to defend whatever status quo social arrangement was most beneficial to themselves. Such a static view of social reality “baptizes” unjust social arrangements. Static “order-of-creation” ideologies that have no relation to the gospel of Jesus, such as those in play during the time of slavery and in the time of the Nazis in Germany (when Christians of Jewish ancestry were prohibited from serving as pastors in the church), are a false basis for ordering the church and her ministries.

(g) While some biblical texts suggest such “an ordering” of female subordination to men, these texts no longer make any sense in contemporary western, scientific societies. The cosmological foundation on which such an “order of creation” argument rests has been overturned by knowledge from the natural sciences and by cultural changes in the west over the past three hundred years. 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? To argue that God actually created the man first, and then the woman from the rib of the man, and that this chronological sequence has significance for the ontological authority of men over women, is as outdated as the traditional interpretations of those biblical texts that speak of the earth being founded on pillars, of the earth not moving, of the sun going around the earth, of the sun rising and setting, of the earth as the center of God’s creation, and so on. Just as the data from Galileo’s investigations confirmed the Copernican theory and brought about the end of literalistic interpretations of these cosmological passages, so the data from natural history and anthropology have spelled the end of this kind of literalistic “order of creation” construct.

(h) The LCMS “order-of-creation” argument conflicts with the clear teaching of the Augsburg Confession, which holds that even apostolic mandates may be set aside for reasons of historical and cultural change, as long as the truth of the gospel and the dictates of Christian love are not violated. Christians like Dr. Luther and Master Melanchthon did not worry about eating blood sausage or food from strangled animals, even though the apostles clearly forbade such eating practices (Acts 15). Likewise Luther and Melanchthon and most contemporary Christians do not think Christian women sin if they have short hair (or no hair) or go out in public without a veil. Which Christian preacher today understands Ephesians 6:5-9 in the way that a majority of pre-Civil War American pastors did, and preaches upon this text as if nothing has changed since the first century, let alone since 1865 or even 1965? Lost in the vision of those who contend for a particular “order of creation” in which women are subordinate to men is the evangelical freedom about which Article XXVIII and Apology XXVIII speak so eloquently.

(i) If a woman has been given the creaturely gifts of intellect, an aptitude for teaching, and the Spirit’s gifts for ministry, her gifts ought to be used in service to the church. Why should that final, 23rd chromosomal pair be more important to the “ordering” of a woman to a man in the church than the gospel itself?

(j) How is such an “order of creation” argument any different from the arguments put forth by our Christian forebears to assert the subordination of people of color to white people, of Jewish people to so-called Aryan people, of citizens to their dictatorial government?

(k) 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). Both men and women are created in the image of God. No longer do Christian theologians debate whether or not women truly bear “the image of God,” as was debated in the days of Thomas Aquinas (1224/25-74). 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.

(2) The traditional proof-texts that have been used to argue for a male-only pastorate are too ambiguous to serve as a clear basis for such a practice. While of course the prophetic and apostolic texts are generally perspicuous, when First Corinthians 11:3-16; 14:33b-36, First Timothy 2:9-15, and the house codes of Ephesians and Colossians, are juxtaposed with other biblical texts pertinent to the practical question of whether women may serve as pastors and theologians in the church, their straightforward meaning and contemporary application become less clear.

(a) Many scholars have wondered how to reconcile First Corinthians 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 First Corinthians 11:3-16, wherein Paul presupposed that women in the Corinthian congregation were prophesying/proclaiming and praying (vv. 5, 13). In the earlier section of his letter, Paul did not rebuke the women prophesying, but insisted that when they prophesy and pray they must wear a covering (an “authority,” discussed below) on their head. In chapter 14, however, he insisted that women must remain silent in the churches; they were not permitted to speak. If both of these statements came from the apostle Paul, they applied specifically to the situation that Paul faced in Corinth, where the activities of some women, likely occasioned by Paul’s own preaching of Christian equality and freedom, led to excesses and to disorder in worship. Paul’s admonition to women in First Corinthians 14 was based on his having to deal with a congregation tossed into confusion and disorder by those speaking, praying, singing, prophesying, speaking in spiritual languages, and asking questions—all at the same time. Men, too, were instructed to be silent when someone was speaking (First Corinthians 14:28). All things were to be done “decently and in order” (First Corinthians 14:40).

(b) Paul’s argument in First Corinthians 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 asserted, “The woman ought to have a covering (exousia, lit. ‘authority’) on her head because of the angels” (11:10). There is no scholarly consensus about the meaning of this verse. Jewish priests were required to wear a head covering (Ezekiel 44:18), but were forbidden to have long hair (cf. Ezekiel 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, to wear her hair down was a sign of adultery (Numbers 5:18). More than likely, Paul’s chief concern in First Corinthians 11 was that women not appear to be like the female ecstatics in the oriental cults of Dionysus, Cybele, Pythia at Delphia, and the Sibyl. He wanted to curb the ecstatic excesses and frenzy in the Corinthian worship. Nevertheless, while Paul did not indicate that some elements in his line of thinking were inferior to others, nor that any one of them could be considered outdated in the future, most 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.

(c) According to First Corinthians 14:33b-36 and First Timothy 2:11-14, women are not only to be subordinate in the churches, they are to be silent; yet, if the exhortation in First Corinthians 14:33b-36 and First 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. The problem that First Timothy 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, to dictate to.” (See Frederick Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001], 150.) 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 (see Mark 10:42-45). According to the apostles, one does not start teaching in the church on one’s own authority. A bishop must be “apt to teach” (First Timothy 3:2). An elder must be “tested” (Titus 1:9). “Female deacons must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things” (First Timothy 3:11). The “laying on of hands” must not be done “too hastily” (First Timothy 5:22). In light of these considerations, one must conclude that these texts (First Corinthians 14:33b-38 and First Timothy 2:11-12; cf. Titus 1:11) condemn those who break with social and churchly propriety.

(d) Surely First Timothy 2:11-15 is among the most opaque of biblical passages. Who knows for sure what the author meant when he wrote that women can save themselves through childbearing? Moreover, First Timothy 2:15 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. First Timothy 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.

(e) 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 scholarly grounds, Paul states clearly in Romans 5 that sin came into the world through one human being (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 First Timothy 2:12 states they cannot serve as teachers of the word to men).

(f) The cultural distance between Paul’s application here and our own contemporary setting is striking. Who today will use these texts (First Timothy 2:8-15 [Genesis 2:18, 21-23; 3:1-7]; Titus 2:3-5; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; First 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, “separate-but-equal” practices, 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 First 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” (First Corinthians 11:13-16)? In First Corinthians 14, Paul insisted 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; see 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. If the LCMS truly applied the texts consistently, it would not only prohibit women from serving as pastors and theologians, but it would teach that women are more prone to temptation by Satan because they are the weaker sex, that women should remain silent in the churches, and that they will be saved by giving birth to children. The LCMS would also teach women to keep their heads covered in public and during the divine service so as not to offend the angels. The LCMS would teach women to keep their hair long and free of braids and not to wear expensive clothes or jewelry. To be fully consistent, the synod would have to teach that no women may serve in authority over a man anywhere, in the church or in society, since this is “an order of the Creator” that is in the very structure of creation. How would such teaching be generally received in a culture far different from the apostles, a culture in which women regularly serve as judges, legislators, presidential candidates, company CEOs, professors, surgeons, airline pilots, military officers?

(g) Given the cultural distance between the time of the apostles and ourselves, we ought to be sensitive to the important Lutheran confessional 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. (CA XXVIII: 98-100) 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 that is not abolished by this decree [i.e., Acts 15:23-29]. (Ibid., 100)

Among those principles that Paul set forth as abiding would be 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 nonbinding, 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 properly 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. What will best serve the gospel in our cultural setting?

(3) While the church is bound to preach the gospel and administer the means of grace in accordance with that gospel, the church is free to order her ministries in ways that best serve that preaching and administering. Historical-critical investigation of the church indicates that in the first four centuries of church history there were multiple patterns and orderings of ministry and that only after the fourth century did a more stable pattern emerge. St. Paul’s apostolic assertion was that there are many gifts, not a single office. Not all were apostles. Not all were prophets. Not all were teachers. Not all were pastors. Not all were workers of miracles, etc. The Spirit gifts the church with ministries that best serve the mission of the gospel and the exercise of Christian love.

(a) In contrast to Jewish tradition, women figured prominently in the ministry of Jesus.

(i) Women were included among the disciples and were witnesses to his teaching and his resurrection.
(ii) In the Gospel according to Luke, Mary sat 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, was commended, not silenced. Given this important example in Luke 10, the meaning of Luke 6:40 is all the more striking: “A disciple is not above the Teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the Teacher” (Luke 6:40 and par.). Surely this implies that Mary, who was sitting at the feet of the Teacher and becoming more fully qualified through his Word, would become like the Teacher, Jesus.
(iii) In the Gospel according to John, the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-30) not only spoke with Jesus, she went to the Samaritans who, John reports, believed in Christ “because of the woman’s testimony” (4:39). The Samaritan men believed because of the woman’s witness.
(iv) Matthew 15:21-28 reports that Jesus conversed with a Canaanite woman, the first Gentile convert.
(v) Mary Magdalene not only was the first to see the risen Jesus, but she told the good news to his other disciples (John 20:17-18).
(vi) In the ministry and preaching of Jesus, women and men were equally invited to full participation in the Kingdom (Matt. 12:49-50). Jesus treated women with attention and respect.

(vii) In light of the prominence that Jesus gave to women in his entourage, many Christians have highlighted the earlier examples of female leadership that are found in the Old Testament: Miriam, Esther, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail, wise woman of Tekoa, the wise woman of Abel.

(b) Jesus gave his Spirit to his disciples (John 20:19-23). There is no indication in this text or any other that Jesus only gave his Spirit to the male disciples or merely to the Twelve. According to Acts 2, in these last days God has promised to pour out his Spirit “upon all flesh,” and that both men and women shall prophesy (Acts 2:17). This was understood to be a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel (see Joel 2:28-29). “Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:18). At the end of Peter’s sermon, he invites all to repent and to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ “so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). As an example of this spiritual gifting, the daughters of Philip prophesied and were called prophets.

(c) Paul claimed the apostolic right to involve a wife in the apostolic work (First Corinthians 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. While we do not know specifically what these women did, it is significant that Paul drew attention to them and their work.


(d) The Apostle Paul spoke of the spontaneous graces of the Holy Spirit, which God pours out on the whole body of Christ—men and women (First Corinthians 12; Romans 12)—and he spoke of leaders and “fellow-workers” (men and women) whose responsibility is “to lead in the Lord” and “to admonish” and “teach” the Christian community (First Thessalonians 5:12; First Corinthians 16:16; Romans 12:8). Paul laid the foundation (First Corinthians 3:10); the fellow-workers built upon it, but they therefore also shared in apostolic authority and privilege which Paul claimed for himself on the basis of the word of the Lord (see especially First Corinthians 9:6, 11ff; First Thessalonians 5:12-14; First Corinthians 16:10-12).
(i) Paul gave special place to prophesying and teaching: “And God has appointed in the church all kinds of people, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers” (First Corinthians 12:28; see also Romans 12:6-8); Ephesians 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.”
(ii) Pauline congregations had leaders and teachers, and these leaders and teachers were both men and women: Priscilla and Aquila, but also Philemon and his wife, Apphia (Philemon 1ff.), and Euodia and Syntyche: “I plead with Euodia and Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:2-3). Surely, contending for the cause of the gospel” did not entail “silence in the church” at Philippi. These women “fellow-workers” were engaged in a public disagreement in the church and such disagreement called for exhortation from Paul. He did not exhort them to be silent, but to come to agreement with each other. The cause of the gospel was at stake. There is also the example of Lydia (Acts 16:15), who allowed the church to meet in her home. Surely, these texts are appropriate for a more balanced understanding of the usual “proof texts” than is sometimes offered in arguments that seek to restrict the service of women in the church. Even the Lutheran theologian, Peter Brunner , who was otherwise a defender of the “separate-but-equal” ideology, had to acknowledge:

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 that 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. (Peter Brunner, “The Ministry and the Ministry of Women,” Lutheran World 6/3 [December 1959], 258)
(iii) In addition to the women identified above, and the women implied in First Corinthians 11:5 (see 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 kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.” According to Acts, Priscilla and Aquila, as well as Peter and Paul, expounded and taught doctrine. Priscilla and Aquila were also greeted by Paul as “his fellow-workers in Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3). Paul continued by writing, “Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house.” Did Aquila do all the teaching and Priscilla keep silent? If so, why did Paul commend both Priscilla and Aquila (note the order) and not merely Aquila? We, in our day, can be grateful for her example and for Paul’s. The latter did not think that the work of this woman, nor that of the other women thanked and greeted in his letters, was inferior to his own apostolic work (cf. First Corinthians 16:19; Second Timothy 4:19). In Romans 16, he listed and thanked 28 leaders of the early church, at least ten of whom were women.
(iv) In Romans 16:1, Paul called Phoebe a “deacon” (diakonos). There is ambiguity in this term. Was she just a “servant” (so the CTCR) or did she serve in a capacity close to that described in First Timothy 3? There is no certainty on the matter, but it is interesting that the deacon’s code of First Timothy contains a digression that speaks of “women”: “In the same way, women must be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (First Timothy 3:11). Were these women the wives of the deacons or are they deacons themselves? The question cannot be answered with certainty. In Romans 16, Paul spoke of a number of women as his “co-workers” (synergoi). He used this term elsewhere to say that he and his co-workers did not “peddle or falsify the word of God” (Second Corinthians 2:7; 4:2). Did these women “co-workers” teach, as did Priscilla? We cannot answer for sure, especially in view of First Corinthians 14:33b-36 and First Timothy 2:11-16, but neither can we conclude that First Corinthians 14:33b-36 and First Timothy 2:11-16 settle the question decisively.
(v) In Romans 16:7 Paul commended Junia (Junias) as one who is “outstanding among the apostles.” Though there are some who try to argue that this may be a masculine name, a significant number of interpreters agree that it is feminine. Could it be that she was one of the wives who shared in the ministry of her apostolic husband?
(vi) In several places Paul indicated that all Christians have the responsibility to teach and admonish one another. He thus commended 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 First Corinthians 12:27-31 (“first apostles, second prophets, third teachers”), especially when one considers that Paul acknowledged female “prophets” in the same letter (First Corinthians 11:5). Paul also encouraged 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” (Colossians 3:16).

(e) While Jesus selected only first-century, Jewish, Palestinian men to serve as his apostles, the church did not remain bound to these historical conditions for the selection of future pastors and bishops. To those who argue that Jesus only picked men to serve as leaders in the first-century church, and that this means that only men may serve as priests or pastors, one can respond by saying, “Yes, he also picked only Jews who were Palestinian.” One could point to any accidental cultural feature of those first apostles and then (illegitimately) assert that this feature is a necessary condition that must be met in order for a later individual to serve as a priest or pastor. “A pastor must be Jewish. After all Jesus only picked Jews as the first apostles.” “A pastor must be Palestinian. After all, the first apostles were all Palestinian.” Paul’s arguments against this kind of legalistic, Pharisaical restriction are sufficient to dispel similar assertions today.

(4) The practice of women serving as pastors or teaching theology is just that, a practice. While this practice is related to Christian doctrine, it is not identical to it. As a practice, it is similar to the practical issue of whether a clergyperson may be married. The argument for the practice of women serving as pastors or teaching theology is thus identical in form to Dr. Luther’s argument for the practice of married clergy. (His argument, which many considered innovative at the time, is especially relevant since a traditional Roman Catholic argument has been that clergy must be celibate, since Jesus was celibate, and they embody Jesus to their flock.) Dr. Luther began his argument by highlighting how the traditional biblical texts used to support the Catholic practice of a celibate clergy had been misunderstood and misapplied and that the meanings of these traditional proof-texts were actually different from the ones defended by countless other theologians over many centuries. He, too, was accused of undermining the classic biblical texts that supported a celibate-only clergy, but this did not stop him from rethinking the meaning of these texts as they related to this particular practical issue. He also drew attention to the individual example of Peter who had a wife. One of his points, of course, is that the entirety of the Christian tradition does not support a celibate-only priesthood. While this is the dominant tradition in both the west (for priests, bishops and also monks and nuns) and the east (at least with respect to bishops, monks, and nuns), Luther’s argument appealed to neglected biblical texts that had been dismissed as irrelevant by those defending celibacy. While traditionalist Roman Catholic theologians appealed to Matthew 19, to 1 Corinthians 7, to the examples of Jesus and Paul, and to canon law, Dr. Luther dismissed canon law and reinterpreted the biblical texts in the light of the gospel and its freedom. He appealed to neglected biblical texts that also bear on the question, and he appealed to the example of Peter and to eastern tradition (at least with respect to priests) and to an earlier western tradition. The argument against a male-only pastoral and teaching office is just as solid as Dr. Luther’s argument against a celibate-only clergy. Neither Luther’s argument nor the one for female pastors/theologians presents a novel teaching or interpretation of Scripture; rather, each appeals to biblical texts that have been neglected and sets forth more solid interpretations of those biblical texts that have been used in the tradition to support a contrary practice.

5) The word and sacraments are valid and efficacious regardless of the personal character or physical attributes of the priest or pastor. Thus the Donatist controversy in the early church also relates to the question of whether women may serve as pastors or theologians. Donatus, bishop in Carthage in the early fourth century, rejected as invalid the ordination of a priest whose ordaining bishop had been an apostate. The Donatists held that their sacraments alone were legitimate and valid because they had been done by morally pure individuals who had not betrayed the church during times of persecution. Caecilian, and later Augustine, argued that the ordination was legitimate, since Christ alone, in communion with his one church, causes a sacrament to be valid by means of his living Word. Likewise several councils in the early church affirmed that the validity of the Word and sacraments is not dependent upon the character of the one administering the sacrament or proclaiming the Word. There is only one baptism, that of Christ who dwells within His Church. There is only one Word, the living Word who is Christ. He is not identical to any minister nor is any accidental or essential aspect of any minister–save the voice to speak the divine Word–necessary for Christ to proclaim, administer, and effect his sacramental grace. While neither the Donatists nor the Catholics allowed women to serve as priests or theologians, one may legitimately extend the rejection of Donatism to include the rejection of a position that holds that the ontology of women precludes them from being valid and efficacious preachers and teachers of God’s word and administrators of Christ’s means of grace. Those who insist that women may not preach or teach the Word to men or administer the sacraments 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. According to this Donatist-like argument, the orderly teaching of God’s word remains invalid apart without its being accompanied by the “being” of men. Such a view is guilty of putting unnecessary restrictions on the power and efficacy of Christ’s living Word.

6) That the word and sacraments are valid and efficacious regardless of the personal character or physical attributes of the priest or pastor is also the position of our evangelical confessions. This position has direct relevance on the question of whether women may serve as pastors or theologians. The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope claims that the validity of the ministry does not depend on the authority of the minister but on the word given by Christ. It says, “The person adds nothing to this Word and office commanded by Christ. No matter who it is who preaches and teaches the Word, if there are hearts that hear and adhere to it, something will happen to them” (Treatise 25-27, emphasis added; see also Augsburg Confession VIII; Apology VII/VIII, 29).

7) There are many examples of women involved in the mission of the church through the centuries whose theological and/or pastoral actions were consistent with the practice of women pastors and theologians. In addition to the teaching of Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and the example of the contemplative Mary of Bethany, and the co-workers with Paul, we can identify several other individuals: second-century prophetesses and deaconesses; the female revealer to Hermas (Shepherd of Hermas); Grapte, a female literate church leader who is responsible for instruction of widows and children, and Rhoda, who becomes the teacher of Hermas (Shepherd of Hermas); the African martyr Perpetua (d. 203), who left a remarkable written record of the experience of martyrdom in the early church and whose writing represents the earliest known piece of Christian literature written by a woman; Probo, whose writings are a major example of Christian theological reflection in the fourth century; Egeria (fourth century?), whose account of her pilgrimage to the holy places of Christianity, The Travels of Egeria, led many Christians to conduct their own pilgrimages; Paula (347-404), the associate of Jerome, who founded a convent of monks and another of nuns; the exceptional abbesses who celebrated the Eucharist and who were given the same signs of high office given to a bishop (ring, mitre, crozier); Melanie the Elder (342-410) and Melanie the Younger (383-438), who acquired formidable theological educations, who were responsible for the administration of several monasteries, and who taught an array of men and women, including the emperor Theodosius; Marcella (325-410), who became an expert on the Bible and theology and aided the clergy with their dilemmas of translation and interpretation; Lioba who was skilled in classical philosophy, theology, and canon law, and who assisted Boniface in bringing order to the missionary churches in Germany; St. Macrina (“the Younger,” 327-379), the older sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa (two of the most influential theologians in the eastern church), who may have contributed more to the Cappadocians’ theology than her brothers; the female mystics, notably Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-82), Mechtild of Hackeborn (thirteenth century), Gertrude the Great (1256-1301), Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373), Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Catharine of Siena (1347-1380), Catharine of Genoa (1447-1510), Christine de Pisan (fifteenth century), Isotta Nogarola (fifteenth century), Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Katherine Zell (sixteenth century), and Argula von Grumbach (sixteenth century), whose lives and writings had a tremendous influence on the spiritual and theological life of the church. There is thus ecclesial support for the view that women may teach the word of God to others, including men. The practice of women teaching the word, also to men, has the testimony of nearly every era of the church. The Holy Spirit has not failed to give evidence of this practice throughout the ages. While the evidence for female pastors and theologians prior to the nineteenth century is minimal, given the dominant cultural assumptions that did not allow women to serve in positions of authority over men (assumptions that also maintained the practice of the subordination of slaves to slave-owners), women still taught the word of God to men throughout the first two millennia of Christianity. They did so as abbesses, anchorites, mystics, nuns, apostolae, and teachers. They wrote diaries, autobiographies, treatises, dialogues, letters, prayers, poems, and commentaries on biblical texts. They served as spiritual advisors to men and women who sought their wisdom and counsel. In the modern period, of course, many more women have studied theology, taught theology, and served as church leaders.

(8) Since the 1960’s, changes in the roles and responsibilities of women in all of the mainstream Christian churches have also occurred. These changes have also affected more conservative church bodies, such as the LCMS. Women may vote in congregations, participate on boards and committees, serve as voting delegates to church conventions, and serve as parochial school teachers (also teaching theology to high school students), directors of Christian education, deaconesses, pastoral assistants. LCMS women now share responsibility with LCMS pastors and congregations for leading adult Bible classes, teaching the Bethel and Crossways Bible courses, administrating evangelism outreach, providing ministry to youth (including ministry to college students and adults), assisting at liturgies, and assisting the pastor with counseling, catechesis, parish administration, worship preparation and leadership, and other parish responsibilities. Some women in the LCMS have studied theology at reputable institutions like the University of Chicago, the University of Notre Dame, and Harvard University, and are significant theologians who have had an influence even beyond the LCMS.

That the problem of a male-only pastorate is not unique to the LCMS is evident in an article by former U. S. President, Jimmy Carter that has been published in the Christian Century. He, too, has been concerned about the inroads of inappropriate exegesis and application into his church body:


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… (Galatians 3:26-28). Jimmy Carter, “Back to Fundamentals,” Christian Century [Sep 20, 2005], 35)
In the hindsight of history we know that those few nineteenth-century abolitionists were right. What were held by many to be “the clear commands of God” came to be understood differently as a result of historical and cultural change. Is there anyone in the contemporary LCMS who will defend those theologians from that time period who opposed the arguments of these anti-slavery Christians? While the church needs to be vigilant in not caving in to cultural pressures that dilute or undermine the gospel, the church is also to be vigilant against those pressures to equate particular church orders with the gospel. While the world cannot and should not tell the church what the gospel is, the church must be attentive to how it communicates the gospel in its contemporary setting. The example of St. Paul is particularly instructive:


To the Jews I became a Jew in order to win Jews. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law, so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel. (First Corinthians 9:20-23)
For the sake of the gospel and the mission of the church, the contemporary LCMS ought to allow qualified women and men to serve as pastors and theologians. The Scriptures do not clearly prohibit women from serving in these offices. More importantly, the valid proclamation of the gospel and its effectiveness do not depend on the gender of the pastor. Prohibiting women from serving as pastors and theologians within western, egalitarian societies is an unnecessary obstacle to the church’s mission. Such a prohibition should be abolished.

Facebook Twitter Email

One thought on “Informal Reflections on Women Pastors and Theologians

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *