Rites and Wrongs in God’s Lifetime

By Mary Todd

I have a number of friends who were quite sure that I would leave the Missouri Synod as soon as I finished my dissertation a decade ago. My work examined the synod’s identity over its 150-plus-year history through the lenses of authority and gender and used the issue of the service of women as a case study, in particular the ordination of women. But I continued to make the argument to them, as I did in the introduction to the book I revised from the dissertation,1 that I believed I could make a stronger case for the legitimacy of my claims as an insider.

I am, after all, a daughter of the church, raised in parsonages as a “church brat” who actually enjoyed learning about the inner workings of the church at its various levels. My dad was secretary of the nongeographical English District during the years that district took the lead in fighting the notorious Resolution Nine, the 1959 attempt to add the Brief Statement to the confessional base of the synod. As a page at the 1962 synodical convention in Cleveland, I watched Martin Scharlemann publicly withdraw his controversial essays on the interpretation of scripture. I attended Valparaiso University at the end of O. P. Kretzmann’s presidency and resonated deeply with both the theology professors I learned from and the progressive spirit of the late 1960s, including the feminism that was emerging in those years. The context of my formative years was embedded in the church, and the ’60s were a time of change and hope in the synod, at least in the parsonage where I lived – the president of the synod, a classmate of my father’s of whom he spoke highly, encouraged the new cooperative spirit exemplified by the new pan-Lutheran body, LCUSA; the “mission district” of which we were a part was on the move into the suburbs, and the forward-looking Mission Affirmations had been well-received by the 1965 synodical convention.

What I’ve just described is the beginning of an assignment I always require of students doing any sort of research – I ask them to write an “autobiography of the question,” a tool that connects one’s interest in a topic with the source of that interest: oneself. I believe it is essential to know why a question is important enough to merit the investment of self and time that extensive research requires.

I didn’t learn of this device until after I had finished my dissertation, but when I later applied it to my research, I understood much more clearly why I had focused on the topic I did. Mine was a question that no one I asked could help me answer, so I had to answer it for myself: what was it about the identity of my church body that caused such fierce resistance to a change that other Lutherans had made so readily in 1970 – the ordination of women to Word and sacrament ministry?

The synod’s official position was clear but didn’t seem to translate as clearly on the local level. Congregations to which my young family belonged and others I knew of had women elders already in the 1970s. Women seemed to be getting mixed signals from their church. It’s no wonder that the 1986 report of the President’s Commission on Women warned of a church body “on a collision course with itself” due to the inconsistencies and uncertainties about what women could be and do.

I always knew my topic would not endear me to those who most opposed the very thought of ordained women. But I had little idea of the extent to which some would go to prevent any discussion of the notion. I learned that even exploration of the topic or association with those who dared do so was enough to earn a label and the excoriation of many conservatives in the synod. And to hold out for such a radical possibility seemed an automatic challenge to one’s identification as a Missouri Synod Lutheran.

The more I wrote and spoke, the more labels I seemed to collect. My colleagues on the women’s studies faculty at the university where I earned my doctorate especially liked the headline “Divorced Feminist to Speak at LWML Convention.” For the seven years I was on the faculty of a synodical college, my credibility was persistently shadowed by the notoriety of my research on the role of women in the church, culminating in the filing of charges of false teaching by a local pastor. I was grateful to have the support of many colleagues, the institution and its regents and in the end to be acquitted of any wrongdoing, but I remain unhappy that I had to go through the process. Never underestimate the toll a heresy trial can take on one’s heart and soul. In case you wonder about the substance of the charges, according to my accuser I should have known better than to even raise the question of the ordination of women, knowing that the synod and scripture were both against it. In addition, it seems I was guilty of “intellectual ridicule” of my church when I thought I was engaged in a lover’s quarrel.

I moved on last year from that campus to another where I am an outsider to the founding faith tradition, but its spirit of hospitality and inclusivity offered me not only a welcome respite from accusation and suspicion but a model of community that embraces the dialogue of faith and reason. Both time and a new setting have offered opportunity for reflection. As I consider my journey from those parsonages where I grew up, here are a few things I think:

  • The synod of my youth, following the model of Luther, applauded inquiry. Respected and well-known theologians produced critical scholarship in books, journals and ecumenical dialogues. The greatest commandment, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind” [Mark 12:30], requires us to wrestle with truth and question what we are taught, does it not? Christian philosopher Clifford Williams would answer yes, suggesting that “we love God by using our minds.”2 But much has changed in Missouri since the schism of the 1970s. Inquiry itself seems suspect. And fear breeds limitation. Publications and public forums address not only safe topics but advocate and affirm safe positions. Catholic scholar Mary Jo Weaver suggests the end result:

We have to consider the consequences of opening our minds to outside (even hostile) queries and ideas, and we have to weigh the outcome of refusing to open our minds to new thinking. Christianity, at its best, is confident in meeting new ideas and new systems of thought; but it is also capable of being fearful and condemnatory.3

  • An evidence of Weaver’s caution is the widespread denunciation of feminism by both women and men in the synod, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the notion underscored by a serious disinclination to learn about it or from it. Women of various ages have left the church because they do not feel as affirmed there as they do in secular society. Like it or not, the ideas of the women’s movement of the last forty years are considered by many historians the most significant social change of the twentieth century. A church body that continues to deny women basic rights of participation and respect reveals a deep underlying misogyny.
  • Many women remain in the church despite having been deeply hurt by it. I have been profoundly affected by the pain and confusion women have shared with me about being denied opportunities to serve — it doesn’t matter whether as ushers, lectors, assisting ministers, voters or office holders. And yet these women remain faithful, hoping against hope that such service will be recognized for what it is — service —instead of an attempt to exercise authority over men.
  • Even the “good guys” in the more moderate camps of the synod have appealed to the few women who have wanted to press the issue of the service of women over the last several years and asked us not to. It’s a puzzle why men of faith seem so fearful, why we find no profiles of courage in this story. But it’s very clear that the woman question is the hot button no one wants to push lest election of moderate candidates be threatened in the volatile political instability that has marked Missouri over the past dozen years. The church will only change when men want it to change, and there seems little evidence of that desire.
  • I will leave it to others in this issue to make the case for the full inclusion of all the baptized in the ministry of the church. I have done so elsewhere and often. The bottom line in my mind is the synod’s failure to be honest about the implications of its refusal to address the issue. On this point I could find no better words than those of Sr. Joan Chittister:

I have simply argued for years that if a woman is not half a person, if she is really a full person, if her baptism is really as authentic as anyone else’s baptism, and her call to discipleship is as deep as anyone else’s, then don’t we have to discuss the theological implications of this as a church?

I don’t see any reason at this stage to deny women ordination. But the real question is, I fear that if we don’t study this as a church, to the point where the next step is obvious to everyone, no matter how painful, it will affect the church deeply.4

Rosemary Radford Ruether believes that such study would produce two “equally daunting possibilities”:

Either this tradition is true precisely because it has been continuously taught, enforced, and re-enforced, and therefore aspiration to the ministry and existence in the ministry is contrary to God’s will and Christ’s intention for the church. Or the church has been deeply apostate, denying to women — who have probably been in every age more than the majority of faithful Christians — full membership in the body of Christ and thus full recognition of that equal redemption won them by Christ.5

  • There are those who believe I support women clergy because I want to be one. I doubt I can convince those voices by saying that’s simply not the case. I have known for many years that is neither my gift nor my calling. But I have been pastored by women, both clergy and lay; I have heard a new voice from the pulpit; and I believe that women who have followed God’s call into the ordained ministry are doing God’s will. To that end, then, I take issue with a church body that believes it is doing God’s will in keeping women from answering that call.
  • Chittister again. Her words are my own:

There is no doubt that women need to tell their stories. But at the same time, there comes a time when you are too tired of trying to be heard in a place like the church where no one wants to hear you. Then, you walk out of it, past it, beyond it. And often, invisibly. They think you’re still there, but your heart is long gone and your spirit is free. I know.6

And so I take my leave from Missouri. My decision is not a matter of sour grapes. It is, rather, a personal reality check and a matter of patience. I see little point any longer in encouraging women to lobby deaf ears or to ask to be invited to the table when the leadership of the synod remains silent on the woman question because it can. I remain Lutheran, but in a church body where the inclusion of all the baptized is a less contested issue. For me, the heart of Lutheran theology is the embrace of the both/and, not an insistence on either/or. My current research on Missouri’s schism of the 1970s offers a cautionary tale about a synod that abandons paradox — the ambiguity of both/and. Paul Tillich earlier offered a similar caveat when he wrote that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.

I once used the expression “not in God’s lifetime” in speculation about when the Missouri Synod might ordain women. I think for a long time I held out hope that the solid theological study for which the synod had been known might lead to a change in its limitations on the service of women. But given Missouri’s intransigence even regarding dialogue on the issue, I now find those words prophetic instead.



1. Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000).

2. Clifford Williams, The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective (Baker Academic, 2002), 37.

3. Mary Jo Weaver, “Rooted Hearts/Playful Minds: Catholic Intellectual Life at Its Best” Cross Currents, Spring 1998.

4. Mark Roth, “The Thinkers: A life dedicated to her faith, and to questioning its policies,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 27, 2005.

5. Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Why I Stay in the Church: Grace in the Midst of Failings,” Sojourners Magazine, July 1994.

6. Roth, “The Thinkers.”

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