The Whole Church Is Christ’s Mission
Women in a Man’s World:
Observations on Ministry in the LCMS
Ruth N. Koch
Before I begin let me define my presentation at this conference.
What I am going to say today has not been approved by anyone but me. I have not submitted this manuscript to the COP, the BOD, the CTCR, DR, the CCM, the NFL, the NCAA, to CNN, CN, nor MTV. My words are not the Voice of Daystar, the Voice of America, the Voice of the ACLU, the Voice of the President’s Council on Fitness, nor the Voice of the SPCA. I have not sought a second opinion nor the advice of Bryan Cave, Bill O’Reilly, Gloria Steinem or Tom Ochs, my brother-in-law. In other words, these are my own thoughts, perceptions, conclusions and ideas, and I take full responsibility for them.
The only people I have seriously and ardently consulted are God and my husband. They seemed to be rather unanimously agreed on the word “Yougogirl” or something to that effect.
And as to you, I am assuming you will think for yourself, draw your own conclusions, interact with me after this presentation and take full responsibility for your own reactions, emotional response and actions. No matter how much I may wish to control your mind and heart, I will have to settle instead for influencing you in the time we have together. Although I am terribly interested in your response and am sincerely anxious to hear about it, I acknowledge that your response belongs to you and is beyond my control.
Let me begin by sharing my heart-place. As a grade school student in St. Peter Lutheran School in Indianapolis, Indiana, and as was the custom long, long ago, we memorized Bible passages and hymns. The Holy Spirit hid things in my young heart in that process, saving faith and biblical truths that formed the foundation for my life and work. My deep and intuitive commitment to the gospel was shaped in that gentle process of spiritual formation, and one hymn in particular focused my understanding of God’s call to gospel ministry. I’m guessing you know (and maybe love) this hymn, even in the old TLH version:
From Greenland’s icy mountains, From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand;
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.
What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases and only man is vile;
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.
In addition to the missionary call at my baptism, God spoke my first conscious call to missionary life through that hymn. Like some of you, my missionary call was not to foreign mission work but to the everyday mission field in my native land. Through public schools, Christian colleges, a lifetime of contact within and without the church, the Holy Spirit has given me a personal goal: “Never miss a chance to share the gospel.”
But then, I have, of course, missed many opportunities by reason of obtuseness and lack of trust that God would really supply the words. I have refused the gospel to some because I was too lazy and uncreative to find the way into that sweet spot in their lives where they could really hear the gospel, and my heart and tongue have frozen in fear or because of intimidation. But still the call persists and in His great mercy and grace, God has forgiven and renewed me—and God continues to call me into ministry.
Only now the mission field has shifted from Greenland’s icy mountains and Ceylon’s coral strand to the American heathen who bow down to 56-inch plasma television sets and the families who worship happiness and the pursuit thereof. My ministry field as a mental health educator includes, but is not limited to, people who come to grief workshops unable to verbalize the hopelessness that immobilizes them, couples engaged in bitter conflict who are filled with hatred and blaming, parents who are sincerely trying to be good parents by focusing on raising happy children but are instead raising godless children. One of the most effective missionary tools I have is to ask the Dr. Phil question: “And how’s that workin’ for you?”
That’s because life without Christ doesn’t work, doesn’t work ultimately and doesn’t work when the going gets tough. And that’s the gospel-sized opening I see for the Holy Spirit to enter and work, if I will faithfully and courageously follow the Spirit’s leading, speak the gospel and share the life-giving Word of God.
Over nearly four decades of teaching, writing and public speaking in the field of mental health, it has been my purpose to introduce distressed and hurting people to sound mental health principles, biblical insight and authority, some common sense and a call to a holy life. When people come to learn about depression or bereavement or conflict management or other mental health topics, I want them to meet the Father who loves and claims them, the Savior who has redeemed them and the Spirit who encourages them in a holy life. The gift of salvation is the everlasting healing and peace God wants to give the people I serve, and helping people hear God’s call to eternal life describes my mission, my heart-place, my calling and my privilege.
Now as to “The Ministries of Women,” I want to offer to you some observations about the church culture, our own LCMS church culture, in which we consider the ministries of women.
We live our faith and practice our religion within our cultural setting. The sociology of religion identifies and defines the particular societal influences, the church culture and the institutional personality of the setting in which religion is practiced. And the reality of gender differences is part of our sociological setting, so I will make some comments about gender differences and how they are influencing our institutional culture.
In this next section, I will offer six observations about our institutional personality and our practices that I believe influence or limit the ministries of women within the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
Six Traits and Practices That
Influence or Limit the Ministries
of Women within the LCMS
#1 Both men and women overemphasize the fact that it’s a man’s world and that the LCMS is a man’s institution.
It’s a fact: It’s a man’s world. And it’s a fact that the LCMS is a man’s institution. For years within our church body, both men and women have recognized these parallel facts of life. It’s a kind of “Duh” observation.
Our cultural context was largely and formally created by men and reflects men’s interests. From women-on-one-side-men-on-the-other-side worship customs to our early male-only college prep and seminary system to today’s limitations on the admission of women into theological training, our church body has one foot firmly planted in the 19th century. Over the years, male synodical leaders as well as women and women’s organizations have effectively mitigated some of those cultural constraints and foundations, but overall, and after all, it is still a man’s world in the LCMS in the year 2004.
Founded as a man’s church and institutionally structured along male cultural and communication patterns, the LCMS continues to be a fundamentally male institution. Okay, so that’s the “duh” part and actually the least important part.
The most important consideration when we look at our male-oriented church body is to consider how we respond to the fact that our church body is male-oriented. What we do with that fact is actually the only thing that determines women’s ministries in our small corner of the Church.
We do have choices as we respond to the fact that our denomination is decidedly male-oriented. I’ll speak more in a few minutes about what those choices might look like, but for now it is important that we acknowledge that we do indeed have a choice about how we pay attention to and emphasize this characteristic of our church body.
Life is difficult. This side of heaven we have thorny, knotty, tricky and formidable problems, problems that don’t have quick and easy answers, and some problems that don’t have solutions at all. And in a very practical way, male-orientation works for about half the population, even those males who make every effort to include women in Christian ministry endeavors.
Now at this point a few of our choices become apparent:
We can work to relieve the injustices inherent in an unbalanced system;
we can educate and support efforts initiated by young people to change this imbalance;
we can commit ourselves to get on with the mission of the church and refuse to be pulled off task;
we can each hear the call to serve and exercise that influence toward gospel mission without regard to gender, being willing to pay the price of obedience;
any or all of the above and many other options.
We do have a choice about how we will respond to the male-orientation of our world and our church body; we can choose how disabling and distracting that fact will be to us, we can choose how obsessive we will be in response.
If the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is to be a church body that welcomes and supports the ministries of women, both men and women must commit to mitigate the negative influence of male-orientation while at the same time refusing to obsess or overemphasize our church’s gender imbalance.
#2 We try to resolve our own personal and family of origin issues within the arena of our church family.
I have listened with great sadness and compassion to the poignant stories of LCMS women who have suffered at the hands of domineering fathers, rude and uncontrolled brothers and unchecked oafish uncles. Not a few of these women describe physical, emotional, spiritual and verbal abuse at the hands of church worker fathers, church worker brothers, elder or president-of-the-congregation uncles and so forth. These suffering women frequently lay the blame for the abuse at the church’s door because of their relative’s involvement in church or denominational life. And to the extent that the church did not intervene, comfort and stand up for these women when the church knew of their plight, they are right to charge the church.
But when I hear many of these stories of supposed church injustice and abuse, my social worker ears also hear heartbreakingly dysfunctional families in full bloom, whether church workers or not. The church has learned from great teachers like Pete Steinke and Edwin Friedman that we all, mostly unwittingly, bring our family issues into the church in an attempt to solve and mitigate them. Edwin Friedman in his masterful work Generation to Generation suggests that behind almost any cranky church member, irascible elder, depressed altar guild member or over-controlling pastor you will find the pain and frustration of personal, family or marital dysfunction.
And when ubiquitous family dysfunction rears its head in church families, be they church worker families or lay families, a look at family systems theory suggests that these folks might well be fighting what are essentially family fights in the name of the Christian faith or in the name of rightness or in the name of orthodoxy. In fact, a person who is deeply angry for whatever reason brings a powerful dynamic to the church family. It’s not unusual for such an enraged person to attempt to discharge that anger and regain lost personal power by being powerful and controlling in the church. If they have to bring down a pastor, decimate a congregation or disrupt an entire denomination, so be it. It makes sense to them.
My social worker instincts get all heated up when I am around those in the church who habitually blame, scapegoat and bait or attack others. The social worker’s burden is to observe it all and to wonder what is really going on underneath and behind that behavior, to intervene when appropriate, to help when allowed. Heaven knows the church has enough legitimate problems connected to gender issues and issues of abuse without having to also take the rap for dysfunctional families.
If the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is going to be a church body that supports and encourages the ministries of women, we must learn to identify and serve troubled and troublesome people, even if they trouble others in God’s name and with righteous and pious pronouncements. Misogynist behavior will be identified and interrupted; we will intervene to serve those who are too troubled to recognize that their disturbed thinking and disruptive behavior harms the witness of the church. And we will be careful not to confuse an individual or family’s problem with the problems of our church body.
#3 We have a love affair with hierarchy.
Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, in her excellent work You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, notes that men are at home in a competitive and hierarchical social structure while women are at home in a world of similarities and personal connections and relationships. Both men and women want to be respected and loved, but men tend to emphasize respect, and women tend to emphasize being liked and loved.
Tannen suggests that men live with a kind of social ladder, a hierarchy, that gives more value and status to someone who is on the upper rungs of the ladder and less respect to someone on the lower rungs. Tannen suggests that a man’s world is permeated with this striving for status and respect. That’s why the worst thing that a man can endure is public humiliation, loss of face or any suggestion that he doesn’t measure up. Little boys are taught that being King of the Hill is all-important and that competition and winning are everything. Tannen says that the currency in the male world is respect and status and that verbal communication is mainly a way to achieve status and maintain a place on the hierarchical ladder.
Women, according to Tannen, focus on relationships, on “making nice” and on doing everything they can to help people get along and to be liked by others. Large numbers of women would say that life without others to love and care for and life without receiving the love and care of others is a life barren and dry. Tannen suggests that women may go to inordinate lengths to establish, maintain and nurture relationships and that women use communication skills mainly to strengthen, deepen and secure those relationships.
Both men and women are called to gospel ministry, and both are at risk, as Luther would say, of falling off either side of the horse by the way they express gender differences. Men can become so preoccupied and consumed with earning respect and securing their place high on the hierarchical ladder that they ignore or run roughshod over relationships that could, if tended, open doors to gospel ministry.
One way that women in the church can fall off the horse is by insisting that everyone be nice and be like women. You’ve heard the show tune “Why Can’t a Woman Be More like a Man?” Well, as they are on tumbling off the horse, if you listen carefully you might hear a woman humming “Why Can’t a Man Be More like a Woman?”
It follows logically then that in our male-oriented church body we will have a natural focus on hierarchy. If people at the top of the denominational ladder are more valuable and useful than people further down the ladder, the scramble for upper rungs becomes all important. And it then becomes important to regulate who may have access to the ladder.
If you consider the LCMS’s hierarchical and authoritarian German heritage, it seems natural that we would have a denominational ladder and a preoccupation with the power and status of those who occupy its rungs. What is important, then, is not which gender is on which rung of the ladder, but a more basic consideration of the question, “In what ways does the ladder contribute to, or distract us from, gospel mission and ministry?”
If you consider Jesus, he seems to make a case for hierarchical ladders getting in the way when he said, “I am among you as one who serves,” and “Not so with you,” in reference to Christian leaders who lord it over others.
If women’s ministries are to be honored and supported in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, we must all, men and women alike, enter ministry and seek to minister “as one who serves.”
#4 We are judgmental instead of judging.
The strength of our church body has always been that we have been able to exercise biblically based judgment about matters of doctrine and practice. Our church worker education has been respected and even revered for its ability to equip men and women for this task; by our scholarship and faithful focus on the gospel, we have made contributions to the whole of Christendom in our denomination’s relatively short life. We believe we have been called to exercise judgment in matters of doctrine and Christian practice, and we have a history of God-pleasing integrity and a calling to bless the whole church.
It might appear to some that we have been busy eroding that fine reputation for God-given judgment over the last several decades.
The distinction between exercising judgment and being judgmental is an important one. If exercising judgment is about using the gospel as our standard for applying judgment, then being judgmental is about using our own personal preferences and standards to judge others.
When being judgmental, a person is making any issue “all about me.” The judgmental person maintains that what I like, what I am comfortable with, how I personally interpret this scripture or that scripture is objectively right and, indeed, the very standard of right and wrong. Perhaps most importantly, this highly subjective judgmental reality declares you wrong if you have another idea, a different interpretation or an atypical practice. The judgmental person declares himself and his preferences the very standard of right and wrong, the personal standard for doctrine and practice, and stands in the place of God. It’s a dangerous place to stand.
Interesting, isn’t it, that a church body so deeply devoted to the gospel, so conservatively focused on the Word of God and so awash in the grace of God could start to unravel in sheer arrogance and judgmentalism?
If the ministries of women are to be fully realized in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, women and men together must repent of having bought into our own ecclesiastical version of the world’s narcissistic Me-generation and, standing firmly on the standard of holy scriptures, become once more a grace-full church body that is known for demonstrating the love of God both within and outside our denomination. We must give up the self-centered human traditions and personal preferences that keep women from following their ministry calling within our denomination; we must stop foisting our opinions and preferences upon God and taking God’s name in vain when we are actually practicing ecclesiastical narcissism.
#5 Bad-tempered, churlish, cranky, snarly and oafish behavior belies our gospel ministry and creates a climate of intimidation.
Men and women have gender-specific ways to relate to their same sex friends and relatives. Men are often helpful and courageous as they speak candidly to other men, challenging their ideas and conclusions and asking hard questions while holding the man accountable.
However, one mark of our synodical “guy culture” is the prevalence of “trash talk,” the practice of trying to intimidate or play with an opponent’s mind by worthless, insulting and intimidating accusations and disparaging comments concerning another’s abilities, commitment or character. In the world of sports, Shannon Sharpe and Dennis Rodman have raised trash talk to new heights, or new depths, if you will. Trash talk is recreational hostility. A billboard near the football stadium in Denver states: “Trash talk is an art form.”
Trash talk is becoming standard operating procedure in our church body, with trash talk tabloid publications, trash talk videos and trash talk speeches. James reminds us, “Does anyone think he is religious? If he does not control his tongue, his religion is worthless and he deceives himself.”
A trash-talking church body is an oxymoron, and a trash-talking church body is deeply offensive and confusing to women. In general, women want everyone to get along and to like each other; women believe that if they work hard and go out of their way to make situations pleasant and genial, something new and fresh can happen that will benefit all involved. Women are deeply intimidated by trash talk and would prefer to walk away rather than try to understand or mitigate something so foreign to their way of thinking and behaving. If many of our denomination’s young women, who, by the way, recognize trash talk for what it is, have chosen to walk rather than navigate the maze of contradictions within our church body, imagine how more mature women react to trash talk.
Men and women can learn from each other, women learning to speak up in respectfully assertive ways as they speak the truth in love, men practicing good manners and respectful behavior, behavior worthy of Christian gentlemen and churchmen—behavior that is courteous enough to open gospel-sized doors in relationships. Women have a hard time receiving leadership from people of either gender who are arrogant and rude; men respect and receive leadership from women who will be truth tellers and have the courage of their convictions. We can learn from each other.
Our present synodical climate of charge and countercharge, accusation, intimidation and fear has increasingly hampered our ministry efforts. Who would want to join a church body in ministry activity when we have demonstrated that we can stage our own version of a World Wrestling Federation smackdown and that we are unashamed, even proud, to do it in broad daylight in the public arena and in the name of God?
We must repent of behavior that intimidates and silences both men and women, but given a woman’s propensity toward building and maintaining relationships, a hostile climate is especially intimidating to women. In a generally churlish and intimidating church climate, both men and women will hoard their ministry gifts for fear of criticism and stay safely on the sidelines of mission and ministry.
Conflict is a given this side of heaven, and while nobody likes conflict, conflict itself does not have to be negative and destructive. Adults can learn to disagree, admonish one another and offer correction with respect and charity. That is, after all, God’s charge to us all.
If the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is to become a place that vigorously supports and affirms the ministries of women, both men and women must manifest our gospel commitment by mutually respectful behavior, good manners and courtesy. Let us deliberately work toward a healthy church that knows how to harness conflict energies for good and knows how to admonish and correct with love. Such a climate encourages and supports both women and men as they work side by side.
#6 When negotiating at an uneven table, we become preoccupied with making the table even.
In her rich and sophisticated book, Negotiating at an Uneven Table, nurse educator Phyllis Beck Kritek describes the uneven table as being the place where people come to negotiate and solve problems together. The unevenness of the table is the result of one party at the table having and exerting more dominance and power than the other; one party is focused on controlling, manipulating and winning. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that by definition an “uneven table” is uneven only because of gender dominance or men exercising power over women.
Phyllis Kritek tells a story that illustrates that an uneven table can be uneven for many reasons. She writes:
Timothy was dying. His translucent skin stretched over bones that charted a tiny skeleton that made me feel like I was viewing a miniature x-ray. His tummy gaped open from surgical incisions that would not heal. Born with so many anomalies that he had no chance of survival, he was being fed through a tube directly into his stomach because he couldn’t swallow. But he couldn’t digest food either, and he was starving to death. Life seemed so bereft for this three-week-old mystery. Yet he had amazing sparks of normal. He had a tremendous sucking reflex and had sucked and gnawed on his tight little fists until they were raw with abrasions.
“He needs a pacifier!” The thought emerged spontaneously, clear logic from my limited wisdom as a naïve twenty-one-year-old student nurse.
And then Kritek traces her efforts to get little Timothy a pacifier. First stop, the head nurse who blankly stated that the hospital didn’t stock pacifiers. Kritek offered to purchase one. Displeased, the head nurse said that pacifiers were considered orthodontically and psychologically unwise.
Next stop a nursing instructor, who reluctantly consented.
Next stop Timothy’s bewildered and grieving parents, who consented and thanked her for trying to make Timothy feel better. They clearly liked the idea that something nice could happen to Timothy.
Next stop the attending physician, who initially resisted on the grounds that children who use pacifiers become dependent upon them and then in exasperation declared, “I have eight children. Not a one of them ever used a pacifier!” He finally and resentfully consented after Kritek delivered a short lecture on normal growth and development, sucking reflexes and the right to modest pleasures as one dies.
In the four days between the pacifier purchase and Timothy’s death, Kritek replaced the pacifier three times. It had been confiscated or lost, according to the report of a night nurse who agreed with the doctor.
Kritek concludes her story, “That one pacifier split the [nursing] unit.”
It would be too simple—and wrong—to describe the uneven table of Kritek’s negotiations for the pacifier as being about gender dominance. In the resistance to Timothy’s pacifier we can identify factors of tradition, conventional wisdom, we’ve-never-done-it-this-way-before resistance and the customs of pediatric medicine. It’s not easy or simple to identify and discern the many factors which make a table uneven.
Many women who desire to follow the Lord’s call into various venues and kinds of ministry within the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod may believe that they are seated at an uneven table; it may seem as if the legs and stability of the table are not favoring the ministries of women. A basic confusion is present, too. How can ministry areas be closed to women simply because they are women, when these women have heard the Lord’s call to gospel ministry? Would God call and equip women for ministry, only to thwart them by closing doors to service?
The natural reflex for some at this juncture is to launch a full-scale battle to make the table legs even in order to force equality for women at any cost. But Kritek suggests that it is a mistake to become preoccupied with trying to make the table even, to obsess about wresting power from the powerful and futile to try to take one’s rightful place by force, manipulation, withdrawal or pretending indifference.
Instead, Kritek proposes that we develop and use moral courage as a powerful and effective tool for negotiating at uneven tables, a suggestion that surely resonates with Christians.
Moral courage at an uneven table is demonstrated in an attitude that moves from either-or and black-white thinking to embracing a both/and stance that is flexible and creative. A negotiator with moral courage commits to stay at the table, promises to tell the truth in love, and takes great pleasure in searching out and implementing creative and innovative approaches to problems and their possible solutions.
Whether man or woman, the person of moral courage at the uneven table finds ways to speak honestly and respectfully and isn’t there to win over the masters of the uneven table but instead to call everyone at the table to the high road, to godly behavior, to solutions that will serve the higher good.
Kritek makes an interesting observation and then comments on a sad reality. The interesting observation is about the metaphors we bring to negotiations at uneven tables; they are usually metaphors of war, competing and prevailing. We want to push back the enemy, destroy their positions, survive life in the trenches and win at any cost. However, if we are willing to negotiate in good faith, we must forsake war talk and language of dominance and control and bring hope, goodwill and respect to the uneven table.
The sad reality Kritek notes is that it is important to know when it is time to leave an uneven table. Alas, there may come a time when one recognizes that the other parties at the table are deeply invested in keeping power and influence unbalanced and uneven. Those parties may refuse to enter into good faith negotiations. Or there may be a time when one’s personal integrity and authenticity are so challenged and threatened that it is time to leave the table, change tables or take a time out before returning to the table. When trying harder is counterproductive, leaving the uneven table is an honest and moral option.
If the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is to be a place where women can answer God’s call to minister fully and with joy, people of moral courage, both men and women, must come to uneven tables and work diligently and with fearless commitment, believing that they are doing the very work of God. Whether negotiations concern the service of women, the moral climate of our synod, the behaviors of people in our church body or other important issues, good people must step forward and work for the good of all and for the sake of the gospel ministry to which we are all committed.
Giving Birth to a New Community
Noted author Henri Nouwen makes an observation that is both challenging and timely for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod at this critical time in our walk together; he writes:
Jesus shows us that true love, the love that comes from God, makes no distinction between friends and foes, between people who are for us and people who are against us, people who do us a favor and people who do us ill. God makes no such distinction. He loves all human beings, good or bad, with the same unconditional love. This all-embracing love Jesus offers to us, and he invites us to make this love visible in our lives.
If our love, like God’s love, embraces foe as well as friend, we have become children of God and are no longer children of suspicion, jealousy, violence, war and death. Our love for our enemies shows to whom we really belong. It shows our true home.
+ + +
Whenever, contrary to the world’s vindictiveness, we love our enemy, we exhibit something of the perfect love of God, whose will is to bring all human beings together as children of one Father. Whenever we forgive instead of letting fly at one another, bless instead of cursing one another, tend one another’s wounds instead of rubbing salt into them, hearten instead of discouraging one another, give hope instead of driving one another to despair, welcome instead of cold-shouldering one another, thank instead of criticizing one another, praise instead of maligning one another … in short, whenever we opt for and not against one another, we make God’s unconditional love visible; we are diminishing violence and giving birth to a new community.
The world is only evil when you become its slave. (Henri Nouwen, Jesus: A Gospel [Orbis Books, 2001])
If the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is to support and encourage the ministries of women, as well as the ministries of men, we must make God’s unconditional love visible among us; we must set ourselves aside and allow God to birth a new community through us.
How might we birth the new community of Christ?
First, let us heed Proverbs 9:6, which urges us to “Lay aside immaturity and live. Walk in the way of insight.”
I believe we are in danger of allowing our beloved church body to be changed into something resembling an unsupervised grade school playground replete with bullies, trash talk, King of the Hill games and youngsters intent on wiping off “boy germs” or “girl germs.”
We’ve probably all been on that very playground as children, and we’re probably all delighted not to have to spend three recess periods a day being hounded by bullies, proving ourselves superior to others by winning or trash talking or engaged in silly gender-bashing activities. You know, folks, we’re grown up now and we have grown-up insight and a few years under our belts. Lay aside immaturity and choose to live the life Christ has won for you, a life free of fear, a life of purpose.
And since you have left that grade school playground, you can make deliberate decisions about how you will live out the call to mission and ministry that you received at your baptism; you can decide how you will behave each day; you have choices about the focus of your life in this Christian community, and you can choose in what ways you will work for the good of all.
Secondly, let’s admit that addressing the ministries of women is not as simple as some would assert.
These last weeks, as I’ve been pondering my assigned topic, “Women’s Ministries,” I’ve come across a patchwork quilt of considerations: issues of right and wrong, hot buttons and code words concerning women’s service and issues in the church, aggrieved women who believe their church body has stolen or at the very least co-opted their call to ministry. There are men who are ready to lead the charge for women’s ministries in the church but who are frustrated and constrained by women themselves. We have a heartbreakingly large number of young women who have left what they consider to be a hopelessly male-focused and out of touch church culture. There are women put off by the traditions, beliefs and customs of our church body concerning the service of women and many women who are not at all put off by our church’s culture and beliefs who are fully supportive of the parameters around women’s service in our church body. I am sure that you have ready in your heart and on your lips many of your own particular concerns and considerations concerning the ministries of women and I respect and honor your interests, anxieties and individual points of view.
What makes this a particularly intriguing topic is that there is no one way to describe women’s ministries, any more than there is only one way to describe the ministries of men. Beyond men’s ordination and women’s ordination and questions about women being elders or congregational presidents or communion servers, beyond the service of lay people of either gender, beyond all those deeply valued beliefs about what scripture says and what our denomination has for decades believed was God’s will concerning the service of women—beyond it all, each Christian, each woman, must still listen to God’s call and then move into the mission field that God has opened to her. In Nike-talk, Just Do It.
Thirdly, thanks to God, this is not about you.
William of Ockham, an English philosopher, Franciscan friar and theologian, introduced the principle that “entities must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary.” In other words, a problem should be stated in its basic and simplest terms. It’s called the principle of Occam’s Razor because extraneous concerns, interesting as they may be, get “shaved off,” and the focus of a problem or principle then becomes clear. You may remember James Carville’s pure Occam’s Razor identification of the principle issue of the 1992 presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The renowned conductor Toscanini was faced with all the complexities, opinions and inclinations of the talented musicians in front of him, who each saw the Beethoven piece they were ready to play in unique and individual ways. He was able to focus his orchestra’s attention and talent by declaring, “This music is not about you. This music is not about me. This music is about Beethoven!”
If we apply the principle of Occam’s Razor to the sometimes thorny and always complex issue of women’s ministries in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, we might focus our attention with a statement like this, “It’s about gospel mission, dear sisters and brothers in Christ.”
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the issue of women’s ministries is not in the end about you and your preferences and passions and deeply held beliefs, and it’s not about me and my preferences and passions and deeply held beliefs. The consideration of women’s ministries is in Occam’s Razor simplicity about God’s call to ministry and a Christian woman’s obedience to that call, wherever it takes her and through whichever doors God opens to her.
Considerations of ladders and uneven tables can become unfortunate distractions that keep women from obeying God’s call to ministry, considerations that pull women off task and squander emotional, intellectual and spiritual resources.
And if we will leave our war metaphors behind, we won’t be discussing winning battles in the church or waging war against unjust practices. We will instead be taking seriously Psalm 37:7, which simply directs, “Trust in the Lord and do good.”
With Occam’s Razor simplicity, Psalm 37 affirms the blessing and the power of the proactive, God-focused woman who enters into ministry because her call to ministry is compelling and joyous. When we’re engaged in joyous ministry, we find we haven’t got heart or interest for war games or hierarchical battles and competitions or anything in all the world that would distract from the baptismal call to serve God with servant joy.
So I suggest to you that women’s ministry is not about you, not about me, and it’s not even really about the LCMS. It’s about God calling, equipping and sending a woman into whichever mission field God sets before her. A woman must answer God’s call and determine how and where God is directing her service and then courageously obey.
If the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is to be a church body that supports and upholds the ministries of women, women must lead the way with an audaciously joyous spirit and good cheer, first by discerning God’s call and then by moving forward in obedience, trusting that the God who calls into ministry is also the God who provides the venue and the gifts for holy service.