Women’s Ministry in the Mission of the Church

Robert Schmidt

Editorial Note: Long before there was a Daystar online discussion group, Robert Schmidt received a phone call inviting him to become active in promoting women’s ordination in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Having come from the Nigerian mission field where, in addition to teaching at the seminary, he served as a chaplain to a four-hundred-student high school and ministered to ten congregations (some pastors there served thirty, and one served sixty congregations), he said he was more interested in promoting the ordination of locally trained, non-stipendiary clergy than he was in women’s ordination. Perhaps now he can finally honor the request to advocate women’s ordination in order to meet the missionary challenges of the twenty-first century.

 

The current dispute in the LCMS about women’s ordination is seldom about ministry. Those opposing it often make their arguments on the issue of the “authority” of the pastoral office.1 Advocates of women’s ordination argue for the equality of the sexes under the Gospel and women’s suitability for ministry.

In addressing the issue both sides often assume that there will continue to be viable congregations in a denomination with institutional rules and procedures. Should the seminaries let women into their pastoral ministry track? Will the synod recognize women pastors? Even if a seminary trains women for the pastoral ministry and the synod approves, will congregations actually call a woman as a lead pastor?

It is more evident, however, that with over 1,000 vacancies and at the same time some candidates without a call, the LCMS has fewer viable congregations than it once had. Furthermore, as the population of the U.S. and the world daily increases, the membership of the synod continues to shrink.2 In the face of these statistics one might either lament the passing of a once vigorous church body or else see ourselves in a challenging missionary setting.

Were both the proponents and opponents of women’s ordination to see themselves in a missionary setting, both sides might be open to new initiatives. What was the role of women in the missionary setting of the early church? Were women ordained for service? What might be the role of women in today’s missionary setting? What vital ministries need to be undertaken which are not being done now, and how can they be shared by women and men?

 

Ministry of Women in the Early Church

The most challenging mission setting the church has ever faced was in the first centuries of its existence. That was also the time of its greatest growth. In those missionary centuries women played an extraordinary role as witnesses, teachers, deacons, patrons and leaders. They were the first to announce the resurrection. Mary, the mother of Mark, hosted a prayer service when Peter was in prison. Paul commends Phoebe, a deacon.3

Leading women in Thessalonica joined Paul and Silas in their ministry. Priscilla and her husband instruct Apollos for his ministry. Lydia becomes a patron of the Philippian congregation and of Paul’s ministry. Junia, with Andronicus, is called an apostle or missionary (Rom. 16:7).

It is tempting to look at ministry in the early church to find answers to today’s questions about women in ministry. The role of women in the first centuries, however, needs to be understood in the context of the biblical shape of ministry. There was not one “office” of the holy ministry; there were many ministries. Some were traveling ministers such as apostles, teachers, evangelists and prophets. Others were usually local such as elders (bishops), deacons, pastors and teachers to equip the saints for their ministries (Eph. 4:11–13).4 Seminaries did not exist and, for the most part, bishops, elders and deacons were not financially compensated.5

In the missionary setting of the first century women were very important as agents of expansion. In addition to the important work of Priscilla and Aquila, we hear of Paul’s fellow missionaries, Andronicus and Junia, the leadership of Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi, and Phoebe who was a benefactor to Paul and others. From the observations of the historian Adolf Harnack to the contemporary sociologist of religion Rodney Stark it is evident that women played a prominent if not predominant role in the mission of the Christian faith. Women outnumbered men in early Christian circles and enjoyed a higher status in church circles than in the general Greco-Roman environment.6

The Augsburg Confession says that no one should teach, preach or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call.7 Yet in the missionary setting of a New Testament house church, it would have been difficult to distinguish between that which was public or private with regard to one’s call or the worship service itself. In such homes women were expected to manage their households, with or without a husband. Furthermore, women, who were most likely widows, hosted house churches of the early Christian movement. The woman, as host, would have been the ordinary leader of the toasts that took place and, in Christian groups, of the special sharing of bread and cup with ritual words toward the end of the eating portion of the meal.8

By the early third century female deacons assisted at the baptism of women, made pastoral visits, carried out religious instruction of women, assisted at travel and authorized representation of the church. They were active liturgically in the recitation of the divine office even though they may not have had a sacramental role at the altar.9 They provided hospitality to socially vulnerable women; they were advocates and agents for laywomen in the church. Female deacons embarked on pilgrimages to accompany other women. As befitted their important role in the church, deaconesses were ordained to their office.10

Given the missionary situation of the early church it is evident that women were very active in many aspects of ministry, including evangelizing, teaching the word, participating in baptism and celebrating the Lord’s Supper in house churches. Their ministries, however, did not commence after receiving permission from a church body. Nor were they usually salaried. It is most likely that they did ministry and were later recognized and blessed to do more ministry.

 

The Mission Call

Even in congregations and church bodies that do not ordain women into the pastoral office women are finding themselves called into significant ministries. German Lutherans who lived in Russia were transported by Stalin to Kazakhstan during World War II. For the most part they had survived and even flourished without a seminary trained or salaried pastorate. After the breakup of the Soviet Union many of the men had the opportunity to go back to Germany leaving behind widows and women whose husbands had left to find employment. In some of the smaller community churches there literally were no men to hold services. Though very conservative in theology, the women decided that they had to carry on. As in the early church they selected for themselves women who lead in worship and administer the sacraments. Their mission call comes from the needs of the congregation and from their fellow worshipers.11

On a far broader canvas, the needs of Roman Catholic congregations and agencies are calling so many women into ministry that some have feared the feminization of the church. There are currently 31,000 lay ecclesial ministers working in Catholic parishes in the United States. During the last fifteen years 9,000 additional lay workers were generated. At the same time the total number of priests dropped by almost 6,000. Roughly 80 percent of the lay ecclesial ministers were women.12

 

The Missionary Challenge

As in the early church, the greatest challenge facing the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is providing enough missionaries, pastors, teachers, and deacons to serve our present membership and extend a credible outreach to new populations. Under our present system the LCMS is doomed to stagnation because of a lack of funds. It simply costs too much to educate pastors and teachers and adequately pay them once they are graduated. Throughout the denomination in congregations, schools, universities, and seminaries the chief topic of conversation is about finances.

Key to renewal and growth in Missouri (and any other denomination) is calling and equipping volunteers for both service and word and sacrament ministries. Without women in ministry, we forego more than one half of the church for the wide variety of ministries needed to address our world. In all ministries it is not the gender but the willingness, aptitude, and opportunity to do ministry that counts.

Should women preach and administer the sacraments? This is really a missionary question rather than a denominational issue. A woman starts a faculty house church at a university campus and at the end of a fine meal invites her fellow Christians to receive the blessings of the Eucharist. As a pillar of her rural congregation that is in danger of closing because they cannot afford a pastor, the real leader of the congregation takes charge and leads the worship on a Sunday morning. Noting that her children have nearly abandoned the faith they practiced in Ethiopia, the mother invites her fellow refugees to her home and they sing songs and speak the word, and break the bread for the forgiveness of sins.

This is the New Testament shape of ministry. Those who call it heresy had better be prepared to show on the basis of the Bible that one needs a resident seminary education, a favorable ruling by the CTCR, or approval by convention vote before such mission work can take place.

The real issue for both women and men who feel a call to ministry is whether they are willing be serve without a sure salary, without recognition from the larger institution, and without being called “pastor.” Opportunities for mission work abound in every community even though pastors and congregations may be slow to become involved. Blessed are those congregations, like the one in Antioch, who pray, and call, and send men and women into mission.

The path to women’s ordination in the LCMS can well proceed on several fronts. Biblical and theological challenges need to be raised against the present denial of women to the pastoral office at every level, at the Synod in convention, at the seminaries, and in congregations. Just as important, however, will be the powerful witness of women actually doing ministry where it is not now being done. In the New Testament there are no arguments about whether women should be engaged in ministry. Instead there is the marvelous testimony as to what women were actually doing in mission. Then and now, the fields are white unto harvest.

 

Notes

1 Departments of Systematic Theology of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, “The Office of the Holy Ministry” in Concordia Journal, Vol. 33, Number 3 (July, 2007), 254.

2 The Lutheran Annual 2006 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 728.

3 Female deacons were called that until the third century. After that time some were called deaconesses. Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, (ed.) Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 4.

4 Carl Volz, Pastoral Life and Practice in the Early Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 15-18.

5 Ibid., 23.

6 Carolyn Osiek, Margaret MacDonald, with Janet Tulloch, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 225-230.

7 Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (eds.) The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 46.

8 A Woman’s Place…op.cit., 161-163.

9 By the 6th century women were no longer involved at the altar with respect to the Eucharist because males excluded females from the sacred because of the fear of contamination associated with menstrual blood and childbirth. Purity had become associated with males and impurity with females. Ordained Women… op. cit., 205.

10 Ibid., 5-7.

11 The writer taught a seminar at the Kazakhstan Lutheran seminary in Almaty in 1998 and learned of the way in which the German Russians there were seeking to carry on their work.

12 John Allen, “Lay Ecclesial Ministry and the Feminization of the Church” in the National Catholic Reporter, Jun 29th, 2007.

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