Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

Post-modernism, Feminist Theology, the Authority of Scripture, and the Issue of the Ordination of Women

Norma Koehne, Warnambool, Vic


The issue of the ordination of women, which is now being widely discussed in the L.C.A., is one that I, as an educated lay person, see as touching on one of the key concepts of the Reformation, the sola scriptura. Where does the church find its doctrine, its evaluation of current philosophical trends, its grappling with social issues? Not from the current and fleeting trends, but through the guiding of the Holy Spirit, from scripture itself. I was appalled when I recently heard that a theologian was supposed to have said that the Holy Spirit can speak to us from feminist ideas and the feminist movement. As we look at some of the fundamental ideas of the feminist movement you will understand this reaction.

With this in mind I would like to discuss postmodernism, and its manifestation in the feminist movement as feminist poststructuralist theory, and in doing this I will be looking at various trends in feminist theology that relate to the concepts in this theorising. Finally, I will discuss how these theories impinge upon our understanidng of the authority of scripture.

My background for this study was a number of units of women’s studies, particularly as they related to education, which I did as course work for an MEd that I completed in 1994.


Postmodernism, which is a move away from positivism to a more diverse open-ended view of knowledge and of our understanding of the physical world, underlies the prevailing climate in many fields of study. In science there has been a shift form the nineteenth century view of ‘an objective world outside ourselves, which is completely accessible to observation and reason’ to the view expressed by J.B.S. Haldane that ‘the universe may not just be queer to imagine, but queerer than we can imagine’ (Harris, 1992). Relativity, quantum physics and chaos theory are manifestations of this shift.

The thesis that nothing is fixed, but multiple, contradictory and changing as concepts and language change, has been developed in the theories of Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Foucault defines ‘discourse’, as a way of ‘constituting knowledge — social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and the relations between them’ (Weedon: 108). To illustrate the way in which discourses can change, Foucault looked at the discourse about female sexuality or mental illness and how it has changed over time. Through his analysis of the history of discourse, Foucault shows that changes have been made to the way in which groups of people are understood by, and relate to society. The fact that discourses are historically produced means that individuals and groups may contest the discourse, and develop new ways of constituting knowledge.

Derrida argues that discourses change as the concepts and language that constitute them change. He states that in language there are no fixed concepts (signifieds) or sound/written images (signifiers), but that these images are subject to constant deferral and are in relationships of difference to other signifiers (Derrida, 1978; Moi, 1985). If there are no fixed concepts, then

in the absence of a centre or origin, everything becomes discourse — provided we can agree on this word — that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. (Derrida: 280)

This means the discourses or discursive contexts in which words are articulated or written develop the meaning, and these discourses can be deconstructed/reconstructed as the contexts change (Foucault, 1981; Weedon, 1987; Lather, 1991). Meaning cannot be fixed. For example, the concept ‘feminine’ in a patriarchal discourse has its meaning in opposition to ‘masculine’, but in poststructuralist discourse the possibility is opened up of deconstructing and moving beyond the masculine/feminine opposition (Kristeva, 1981).

Deconstruction is a term that is also developed by Derrida. He talks about putting concepts ‘under erasure’, that is, to begin the process of changing them, while still using them. The first step in the process of deconstruction is to locate the discourse that is being used in the context, and to see how it is constructed, in particular to make visible the binary oppositions that are located in it. The second step is to remove the negative aspect of the binary opposite and make it a relevant aspect of the positive term. The final step is to move beyond the binary terms to a multiplicity of ways of speaking the concept (Lather, 1991). As Davies (1993,4) puts it, ‘Deconstruction involves finding the hidden metaphysical binarisms that underlie and structure Western thought, finding a way in between the binanisms and breaking them open’.

Another term used in postmodernism is ‘discursive practices’. Reality is socially constructed through discursive practices, which are the ways we order our world through storylines, myths and metaphors. These discursive practices ‘position’ us as we construct ourselves in relation to them (Weedon, 1987; Davies, 1989; Davies & Harré, 1990; Tong, 1989). Positions are made available as we speak ourselves, and as we are spoken into existence. As positions are made available, we position ourselves in relation to them, or are positioned by others in relation to them. We are ‘in an important sense constituted anew in each new context, each new set of relations and positions within discourse and storylines’ (Davies, 1993). Feminist poststructuralists examine and deconstruct many of the storylines and discourses that have been used to order the world and to say what it means to be masculine and feminine.

Feminist poststructuralism and feminist theology

Feminist theorists have welcomed postmodern, poststructuralist ideas because they are a ‘break with totalizing, universalizing theories and the humanist view of the subject that undergirds them’. Gone are fixed meaning, absolute knowledge, and ‘grand narratives’ (Lather  1991, 5). In their place are the ‘contingent, messy, boundless, infinitely particular, and endlessly still to be explained’ (Murdoch, in Lather  1991, 6).

In this acceptance of postmodern ideas the earlier strands of feminist theory are incorporated, rather than excluded. One way of understanding this is to look at the three strands of feminist theory as outlined by Julia Kristeva (1981), a French linguist and psychologist. The first level of feminist thought, which was developed in the nineteenth century, is seen in liberal feminism, universalist, deeply rooted in social and political life, articulated to enable women to ‘gain a place in linear time . . . time of project and history’ (Kristeva: 193). Existing structures in politics, education and law, and existing theories, liberal humanist theories, were accepted, but alternations were made to allow women greater equality with men within these structures. So, liberal feminism has worked, as Kristeva has outlined, in ‘linear time’, becoming deeply involved in the ‘socio-political life of nations’ (Kristeva: 193) The achievements have been profound: equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity in employment, education and politics, and control of conception and abortion. However, this equality in theory and in political legislation does not necessarily mean equality in treatment and practice. For example, women are still a minority in executive positions in many professions. Moreover, liberal feminism does not challenge the male/female dualism. Specifically, liberal feminists do not challenge in any fundamental way theories about masculinity/femininity based on natural biological differences. They accept the humanist conception of subjectivity that ‘presupposes an essence at the heart of the individual which is unique, fixed and coherent and which makes her what she is’ (Weedon: 33). This view does not allow for change, but rather can be used as an explanation for female inequality; ie. females are not ‘tough’ enough to achieve executive positions. Additionally, liberal feminism cannot explain the experience of a multiple contradictory subjectivity, which many women experience in the work place. It rather leads to the desire to smooth out or ignore any contradictions, and to present to the world a coherent view of self (Davies & Harré, 1990).

This liberal feminist strand was the basis for the first movement of women towards ordination. Women in America in the nineteenth century began to demand voting rights and full citizenship from the political institutions, and also voting rights and ordination from the churches.

In the first women’s rights convention in the USA held at Seneca Falls in 1848 . . . in their demands for change, the women asked both for voting rights and for the right to ordination in the church, or as they put it, ‘a speedy overthrow to the male monopoly of the pulpit’ (Ruether, in Sharma: 271).

Ruether sees this as the first stage of the feminist ‘revolution’ in the church, where the number of women in seminaries and as pastors could do little ‘to make an impact on the substance of the christian faith, the way it is symbolised, organised and understood’ (279). As well, women were found to be marginalised in parishes, often working at lower rates of pay and in assistant positions.

The second level of feminist theory examined by Kristeva, radical feminism, appeared in the 1960’s. It rejects the political arena, becoming involved with celebrating women’s specific identify as women, and in finding a language and symbols to express this identify. Women are seen to identify with nature and encouraged to celebrate their sexuality, their unique and positive qualities. They reject theories produced by men that purport to describe the experiences of women but which tend to ignore and distort them (Davies 1987b). They analyse and reject hegemonic patriarchy as a social structure. In practice, radical feminists have advocated separatism, that is, that women live together in ‘communes, where traditional forms of femininity are privileged’ (Weedon: 135).

Feminist theology in this second phase advocates this separatism as well. Rosemary Ruether talks about movements in the USA where women became frustrated with changes and established ‘alternative, feminist-defined worshipping communities . . . known as “women-church”’. These communities were to provide a place where ‘feminist experience can be fully expressed, in worship, in study or reflection, and in action’ (Sharma: 284). I read a few years back of one such group in Melbourne where the female minister had special services for women in which the basic idea was that all worship elements related to women’s experience and was valuable for them.

Some texts of feminist theology celebrate feminine sexuality. Two books that I did not read had the titles, ‘Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship’ and ‘Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power’. The first of these books had the library summary: Friendship, Lesbianism, Religious Aspects and Christianity. In Australia the controversy over the lesbian relationship of a senior female minister in the Uniting Church can be seen as part of this feminist theorising.

Feminist theology began to develop a new language and symbols to express women’s experience of religion and to break free from patriarchal texts. Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology (1978) invests words with meaning and ‘spins’ her words into a web of meaning that is ‘for the lesbian imagination in all women It is for the hag/crone/spinster in every living women’ (xiii). Christianity is seen as a myth that is ‘refined mindbinding’ (74), and the pre-christian ‘Tree of Life, the Sacred Tree, the Goddess’ (79) is seen as being coveted by Christianity ‘into the symbol of the necrophilic S and M Society (80). So, Christian symbols are derided, and new more palatable symbols for women, like the tree of life, are celebrated.

Theology produced by men was seen as silencing and marginalising women. Ruether’s answer was to develop new texts that would be based on women’s experience. In Womanguides she states that ‘feminist theology must create a new textual base, a new canon’ because ‘feminist theology cannot be done from the existing base of the Christian Bible’ (Ruether: ix). The reason given is that the Old and New Testaments are shaped by patriarchy, and so they cannot be used by women to celebrate their experience. The collection of texts that are then assembled to cover topics such as the image of God/ess, the Divine Pleroma, Redeemer/Redemptrix, Repentance and Conversion are a mixture of biblical passages, pagan myths and stories, gnostic writings, secular writings from Freud and Engels, the Shaker Bible, Mary Baker Eddy and poems from women who were studying theology. All of them are given the same authority, and Ruether makes no apology for this, writing at the end of her introduction to the collection: ‘We too can write new texts to express our new consciousness. We can read them in community gatherings of WomenChurch. They can become texts for preaching and teaching the vision’ (xii).

An example of the way in which feminist theology can ‘make an impact on the substance of the Christian faith, the way it is symbolised, organised and understood’ (Sharma: 279) can be seen in the chapter on Redemption in Womenguides. Readers, in their reflection of the texts presented, are to ponder ‘that what we were about was our own self-redemption, rather than a “work” of redemption done outside our own capacities’, and whether ‘Christology can remain encapsulated in a single “once-for-all” figure from the past who “completed” the work of salvation, even though we and our history remain obviously unredeemed’ (Ruether: 112).

The separatism of radical feminists and their tendency to assume that there is an essential feminine nature limit the capacity of radical feminist theory to effect lasting changes to society. It is as deterministic a theory as liberal feminist theory in that it tends to define and fix the nature of women (Weedon: 135). Also, by developing its own ‘grand narratives’, it does not deal adequately with the variety of experiences that are lived by women (Stanley & Wise: 34).

So, a new level of feminist theorising, poststructuralist feminism, has been developed, which attempts to incorporate the lived practices of women and to fully consider the variety of women’s experiences. Kristeva sees this third level as a new generation and a new ‘signifying-space’ (Kristeva: 209) where the male/female dualism is relegated to the area of metaphysics, and the myths and attitudes that individuals use as they construct their subjectivity are deconstructed. These myths and attitudes are part of discourses; that is, ways of constructing the world, ways of thinking, saying and acting that are mobilised through discursive practices (Weedon, 1987). Mary Daly’s work, as well as following some of the ideas of radical feminist theory, also fits into this third level of feminist theorising.

In keeping with the ideas of poststructuralist theory, all three levels of feminist theory are necessary and important (Kristeva, 1981). If each individual has a contradictory subjectivity that is in process, is constantly being positioned through discursive practices, and positions herself in relation to the positions offered, then she can choose a liberal feminist position in one context, a radical feminist position in another (Kristeva, 1981; Weedon, 1987; Davies, 1989b; Lather, 1991). So, if a female is being placed in an unequal subject position in the workplace, she can take a liberal feminist position and work in a political way to reject this positioning. When girls are being harassed and put down at school, they can be shown radical feminist theories about patriarchy and power to enable them to fight against harassment and to develop pride in the positive aspects of femininity.

Sola scriptura

Postmodernism, feminist poststructuralist theory and feminist theology attack the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Postmodernism brings all authority into question, feminist poststructuralist theory sees all grand narratives and fixed knowledge as negative and all things as being in process and changing, and feminist theory places other texts on the same level as scripture and changes doctrine to fit women’s experience.

While Lutheran theology teaches that Christ and the gospel are the central content of scripture, it also upholds the principle of scripture alone as the inspired basis of faith and life. God reveals himself to us through scripture, not through philosophical trends or through dreams, or through outside texts. Luther in the Smalcald Articles states that ‘the word of God shall establish articles of faith and no-one else, not even an angel’ (part II, article II 15), and that, ‘accordingly, we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart form such Word and sacrament is of the devil’ (part III, article VIII 10).

In the debate about women’s ordination those who follow the above principles in relation to texts that specifically talk about women and the public ministry are accused of legalism with the charge that they lack the true spirit of the gospel. Scripture is authoritative because it proclaims Christ and because it comes from God. God speaks in both law and gospel, and when he says that he has given a command then as redeemed and sanctified children of God through faith we are to obey his will, as Abraham that great example of faith did when he was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. To do otherwise is to willfully disobey God’s will. When reading many of the papers that have been written on the issue of women’s ordination with their tortuous arguments to explain away clear passages of scripture I am reminded of young children who resort to more and more tortured arguments when their will is thwarted. Other papers use sociology or tradition as their argument, while still others try to use obscure and unclear passages. The two passages in question, 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 can be clearly understood by intelligent lay-people as they stand, clearly stating that it is not God’s will for women to hold the office of public ministry. We might wish that God had given us further reasons why this is so, but he has not. In fact, even Rosemary Ruether understands what 1 Timothy is saying (‘We can read the dictates of 1 Timothy about women’s silence and exclusion from ministry’), although for her these are to be read in a new light when they are placed against the gospel of Mary, a gnostic writing. The one who is the gospel was always obedient to the will of his Father and I will conclude with his words from John 14:23,24,31John 14:23,24,31
English: World English Bible - WEB

23 Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him. 24 He who doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word which you hear isn’t mine, but the Father’s who sent me. 31 But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father commanded me, even so I do. Arise, let us go from here.

WP-Bible plugin
: ‘Whoever accepts my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me. My Father will love whoever loves me; I too will love them and reveal myself to them — the world must know that I love the Father; that is why I do everything as he commands me’.


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Presentation at the Symposium
“Ordination of women in the LCA – Yes or No?”
held at Luther Seminary, Adelaide, South Australia
July 24 and 25, 1998

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