By Michelle Eckert
Since all Lutherans read the same scriptures and adhere to the same confessions, their vehement disagreement over the issue of women’s ordination might seem puzzling, at least at first. While some freely grant females a place behind the pulpit and the communion table, others insist adamantly that women may not fill a leadership role within the church. When one investigates this matter academically, the reason for the controversy becomes clearer, for the Lutheran Confessions do not explicitly deal with the issue at all, and even the Bible passages regarding women seem self-contradictory in places. To satisfactorily resolve the question of whether women may rightly receive ordination, one must extrapolate the Confessions’ teachings about church practice and apply them to the current situation, as well as attempt to distill a central message from the various Scripture verses. These texts repeatedly emphasize the theme of Christian liberty, and therefore, one may conclude that in order to remain faithful to the Lutheran Confessions and to the Gospel, Lutheran women should have the freedom to serve as ordained pastors in the church.
In order to help the gospel spread effectively, God has established specific responsibilities for ministers to fulfill, while the church as a whole has the responsibility of confirming those qualified to fulfill these duties. The Augsburg Confession summarizes the minister’s role, or the power of the keys, as “a power and command of God to preach the gospel, to forgive or retain sin, and to administer and distribute the sacraments.”1 Pastors fulfill this calling according to the power of the Holy Spirit, who bestows the spiritual gifts they need in order to act as shepherds, i.e., preaching the gospel eloquently, administering the sacraments according to the gospel and acting with compassion and humility towards the flock. Through ordination, “the rite by which the church sets suitable candidates apart for the office of the ministry,” churches publicly recognize those who have been blessed with the particular gifts that contribute to the ministry.2 The power to ordain is an exercise of human decision, as Melanchthon writes, “The true church … certainly has the right of choosing and ordaining ministers” in order to build up the body of Christ.3 According to this understanding, though the call to serve for the sake of the gospel certainly comes from God, God has given to humans the discretion to choose who may publicly fill that office of pastor.
True to the Lutheran understanding of the calling of all believers, all Christians are unconditionally qualified to contribute to the ministry of the gospel by virtue of their baptism. “You are … a royal priesthood,” declares St. Peter, called to proclaim God’s acts of love and mercy to the rest of the world (1 Peter 2:9). Luther stresses the all-encompassing nature of this call, saying, “Holy, pious women and children are also tonsured and anointed priests. For Peter’s words apply to all Christians.”4 Christians enter into this priesthood through baptism, “the ordination of each believer.”5 This rite recognizes no gender; all the baptized, both men and women, have equal access to God and can interpret the scriptures without need of an intercessor. In the same way, Luther asserts that both men and women receive the call of vocation, summoning them to follow Christ’s example of humble service to others.6 Though only a select few are specifically called to become pastors, each believing Christian, without distinction, has been sanctified as a minister of God’s Word.
The New Testament provides several examples that demonstrate how women can contribute to Christian ministry in meaningful ways, even by preaching the gospel authoritatively. When Jesus’ parents take him to Jerusalem to dedicate him at the temple, they meet the prophet Anna, who immediately recognizes Jesus as the chosen redeemer and “[begins] to praise God and speak about the child to all” (Luke 2:38). In addition, John tells the story of the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at a well, who becomes “the first evangelist” when she proclaims Jesus in her city, inviting others to know him as the Messiah.7 Her message is clearly powerful and effective: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). Another woman, Mary Magdalene, serves as “the first witness to the resurrection and as an apostle to the apostles” when Jesus sends her to tell his disciples the good news of his victory over death.8 Finally, 1 Corinthians 11 describes ways in which women should exercise decorum when they pray and prophesy within the church, implying that they do indeed have proper leadership roles within their congregations. All of these examples from Scripture illustrate that gender does not stop women from playing an essential role in spreading the gospel, nor does it keep God from choosing them as authoritative witnesses to his word.
Unfortunately, Scripture also contains passages that many cite to prove that God bans women from participating in pastoral ministry. Although Paul makes reference to women prophesying and praying aloud within the church, just a few chapters later he instructs, “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Similarly, 1 Timothy 2:12-14 states, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” This second passage hearkens back to the second and third chapters of Genesis, in which God places woman under man’s dominion as a condition of their fallen, sinful state. Some understand this to mean that God has established a hierarchical order of creation: because he formed the woman after man, and because she sinned first, she is his inferior, and by nature must remain in submission.9 Thus, they use these passages to categorically deny women the responsibility of officiating at the divine service, particularly the responsibility to teach and preach to males, and have said that such actions are “usurping authority over men.”10 Although Anna, Mary Magdalene and the rest of the women cited above certainly would have spoken their authoritative message to audiences that included men, Paul’s demand for silence and subordination seems unequivocal and final.
Thankfully, when Christians view Scripture through the lens of the gospel, it becomes clear that Christ has given his people freedom under the demands of the law. The Lutheran Confessions stress the importance of using the gospel as the norm or as the principle that colors one’s interpretation of the rest of the Bible. The norm of the gospel teaches that Jesus’ death and resurrection have fulfilled the law in its entirety, releasing his people from its captivity. It teaches that all Christians are equally vital members of the body of Christ, called to serve as his instruments in the world.11 Most significantly, the norm of the gospel teaches that among the baptized “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28). In Christ barriers break down, distinctions disappear and unity takes their place. Though the law demands that women remain subordinate, Paul’s words here in Galatians proclaim their equality. When Christians obscure this gospel by emphasizing the demands of the law instead, they misuse Scripture, binding consciences that Christ has liberated and forcing members of his body back into the bondage from which he died to free them.12
Because of the promises of the gospel Christian men and women can rejoice knowing that in Jesus they become a new creation, restored to the wholeness that sin destroyed. The first chapter of Genesis tells the creation story in which God does not create woman after man, placing her under his rule, but instead creates the two together, both in his image, both with equal dominion over creation. Only after the fall does God subject the woman to her husband’s rule; this is not God’s primary, eternal plan for creation but a condition imposed on humanity’s corrupted state (Gen. 1:27; 3:16). However, in baptism the old, sinful self dies, and men and women rise to new life as members of Jesus’ body.13 As 2 Corinthians promises, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17). Although sin displaced woman from her initial role in creation, Christ has undone Adam and Eve’s fall, restoring humanity to its original intended state and enabling men and women to once again live as his likeness.14 The gospel invites baptized Christians to no longer live as their old selves, fractured by sin, but to “clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24). Christians ought to live in such a way that they faithfully reflect his image, which is one of wholeness, not division. In order to fulfill their role as Christ’s body in the world, all members, not just the women, are called to act humbly towards one another, following Jesus’ example of sacrifice and service. Submission, then, is no longer a condition of humans’ sinful state and a sign of female inferiority but a central characteristic of Christian ministry.15
Though Lutherans emphasize the importance of Christian freedom, there is occasional need to enforce law in order to promote the gospel message. Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession states, “Regulation belongs rightfully in the Christian assembly for the sake of love and peace,… 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.”16 For example, Walter Freitag points out that the Corinthian church to which Paul writes seems especially zealous and uproarious, as implied by the number of regulations he advises for them. This includes not just the command that women remain silent but also that men keep silence when another is speaking. As Freitag explains, “If decency and good order were not to be restored,… not only would Christian freedom have been chained but the very life of the Gentile Church would have been put in jeopardy.”17 For cases such as these, when laity do not conduct themselves in orderly and constructive ways, freedom must be curbed lest it prove harmful to the church. In addition, allowing women to lead would also have been detrimental to the Corinthian church due to cultural conventions of the time. Paul would have found it necessary to enforce women’s silence and submission (in contrast to his earlier references to females prophesying) so that their conduct would not deter outsiders from the congregation or create an unfavorable impression of Christianity.18 In such circumstances, laws and human practices edify the church, allowing the gospel message to spread more freely.
Though regulations do enhance pastoral ministry in certain cases by creating stability within the church, the Augsburg Confession clearly states, “Consciences should not be burdened … by considering it a sin when [regulations] are violated without giving offense to others; just as no one would say that a women commits a sin if, without offending people, she leaves the house with her head uncovered.”19 The confessors advocate using discretion when interpreting apostolic commands in order to avoid subjecting Christians to the law when it need not apply. They teach that Christians may exercise their Christ-given freedom to set aside mandates that are no longer culturally relevant, for rules regarding human practices such as ordination are adiaphora–matters that have no effect on one’s salvation or standing before God.20 If Christians find that a practice imposed by the apostles no longer enhances the gospel but instead restricts it, they should prayerfully choose the course that makes their ministry most effective. In the present day, when few are offended by female leaders and many more could benefit by hearing the gospel preached from new sources, it is counterproductive to continue imposing regulations regarding women’s subordination. Instead of burdening females’ consciences with laws that ultimately make them less effective ministers of Christ’s Word, the church should exercise its liberty, recalling Paul’s words in Galatians: “It is for freedom Christ has set us free” (5:1).
When exercising its God-given right to choose and ordain ministers of the gospel, the church must focus above all on the fact that pastoral ministry centers totally on the Word and Sacrament, not on the person administering them. The Lutheran confessors stress this point again and again; for example, Melanchthon states that “the ministry of the New Testament is not bound to places and persons,… Nor is this ministry valid because of any individual’s authority but because of the Word given by Christ.”21 Again, Luther writes, “You should … dissociate God’s Word from a person; you should not rely on a person but solely on the Word of God which you hear.”22 Indeed, the Augsburg Confession does just that. When Article V describes pastoral ministry, it focuses exclusively on the efficacy of the Word and sacraments for producing faith and does not make a single mention of the person performing the rites. Christ alone gives ministry its authority, making the gender or other characteristics of the pastor irrelevant.23 If one claims that a female pastor somehow renders ministry invalid, one exaggerates the value of human authority at the expense of the Holy Spirit’s power. Therefore, when Lutherans persist in defining pastoral ministry by gender and not solely by the content of the message, they ultimately bind the gospel, making it subject to human traits and practices, restricting the ways through which its message may spread.24 Christ died in order to provide freedom, the Reformation sought to restore it, and the Holy Spirit continuously calls Christians to live it out; the church ought to now express that freedom through its practices so that all members of the body of Christ may perform the service to which they feel the Spirit calling them.
When churches today free women to serve as ordained pastors, they open up new realms of possibilities for spreading the gospel, ways which would have been lacking in ministry confined to just males. Women bring different interpretations and modes of expression to the office of preaching, as well as an ability to empathize with female characters in the Bible in a way that men cannot. Furthermore, choosing to ordain women creates an opportunity for men and women to serve side by side as full partners in ministry, forming a living model of creation restored to its original wholeness in Christ.25 However, no matter how persuasive the reasons, some members of the Lutheran Church simply are not ready to accept women as pastors, and the ones who disagree with them should take care to still demonstrate Christian love and understanding. Those in favor of women’s ordination must remember not to impose this human practice on others, lest it become a stumbling block and a burden to conscience. Ideally, open and thoughtful discussion should continue about the issue so that the church will remain receptive to the possibility of new and effective forms of ministry to which God may be calling them. Above all, any decisions for or against this practice should be made with the Holy Spirit and the Word as the guide, always considering which choice will most edify the gospel. Though differences in opinion and in practice remain (and probably always will), Christians can rejoice in the knowledge that Christ is continuously present in their ministry, always guiding and re-forming them into his new creation. Christians can trust in the leadership of the Spirit as their ministry evolves and takes on new faces, for, as one female Lutheran pastor writes, “Deliberate and prayerful change can be seen as the continuing work among us of our living and all-powerful God.”26
Abraham, Stanley R. “Women’s Ordination: Permitted under the Gospel.” Online essay: http:www.thedaystarjournal.com. 1999.
Bengston, Gloria E., ed. Lutheran Women in Ordained Ministry 1970-1995. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.
Book of Concord. Ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. “The Service of Women in Congregational and Synodical Offices.” St. Louis: The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, 2005.
Dawn, Marva J., Richard T. Hinz, Marie Meyer, Dot Neuchterlein, and Elizabeth A. Yates. Different Voices/Shared Vision: Male and Female in the Trinitarian Community. Dehli, NY: American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1992.
Freitag,Walter. The Ordination of Women: Challenge for Canadian Lutheran Unity. Canada: Mr. Zip Instant Printing, 1978.
Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Preus, Marilyn, ed. Serving the Word: Lutheran Women Consider Their Calling. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988.
Reumann, John H. P. Ministries Examined: Laity, Clergy, Women, and Bishops in a Time of Change. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987.
1 AC XXVIII, 5-6.
2 Walter Freitag, The Ordination of Women: Challenge for Canadian Lutheran Unity (Canada: Mr. Zip Instant Printing, 1978), 84.
3 Philip Melanchthon, “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope,” 69.
4 Martin Luther, “The Misuse of the Mass.” Quoted in Stanley R. Abraham, “Women’s Ordination: Permitted under the Gospel,” 1999 [article online]; available from http://day-star.net/women_ordination.htm; Internet; accessed 2 Feb 2000.
5 John H. P. Reumann, Ministries Examined: Laity, Clergy, Women, and Bishops in a Time of Change (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987), 85.
6 Gracia Grindal, “How Lutheran Women Came to Be Ordained,” in Lutheran Women in Ordained Ministry 1970-1995, ed. Gloria E. Bengston (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 35.
7 April Ulring Larson, “The Opening Door of Pentecost,” in Bengston, 119.
9 Reumann, 83.
10 “The Service of Women in Congregational and Synodical Offices: A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod” (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, 2005), 16.
11 Marva J. Dawn, “Hermeneutical Considerations for Biblical Texts,” in Different Voices/Shared Vision: Male and Female in the Trinitarian Community (Dehli, NY: American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1992), 17.
12 Abraham, “Women’s Ordination.”
13 Reumann, 83-84.
14 Freitag, 59.
15 Dawn, 18-19.
16 AC XXVIII 55.
17 Freitag, 101.
18 Dawn, 16.
19 AC XXVIII 56.
20 Freitag, 96.
21 Melanchthon, “Primacy of the Pope,” quoted in Abraham, “Women’s Ordination.”
22 LW 22:400-401, quoted in Abraham, “Women’s Ordination.”
23 Freitag, 92.
24 Abraham, “Women’s Ordination.”
25 Norma Cook Everist and Barbara K Lundblad, in Bengston, 77, 88.
26 Janet Landwehr, “Whether Women, Too, Can Be Pastors,” in Serving the Word: Lutheran Women Consider Their Calling, ed. Marilyn Preus (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), 110.