Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

CHURCH FATHERS, WOMEN AND ORDINATION

In the last chapter of Romans we read greetings extended to quite a number of early Christians, among them nine women: Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Junia, Tryhana, Tryphora, Julia, and the mother of Rufus and sister of Nereus. Pastor Ray Schulz made the case for Junia being a woman apostle.

Women were certainly involved in early church structures, but as the church became more hierarchical and under the influence of the early church fathers, women disappeared from church history. ‘Her story’ was not written down; ‘his story’ has survived.

Today these church fathers are perceived to have been less than kind to women in general. They were influenced not only by the Bible, but also by Greek philosophy, and this tradition including its misogyny, was passed on.
In the Middle Ages the idea that a woman is somehow less than a complete male and therefore cannot be ordained as Christ’s representative, came into Catholic thinking.

In the light of women’s perceived inferiority it is interesting to look at a woman mystic of that era, Hildegard of Bingen. She went on preaching tours, and advised princes, bishops and popes, and her impressive works on theology and vision, mineralogy and science, art, music and poetry were included in the published works of the Fathers. There were also other women mystics during this period: Elisabeth, Gertrude, Julian, and Margery.

Although the Middle Ages gave us the spiritual heritage of women mystics including Hildegard of Bingen, from our point of view there are many things that disturb us about the Church in this period.

Many of the practises of the church with its male clergy neither communicated the gospel nor encouraged participation. For example, worship services in Latin, a language the common people could not understand; no sermon; no general prayer; prayers rushed and mumbled; a tinkling bell to indicate the moment of transubstantiation; and inaudible words of institution.

Why didn’t the reformers also deal with the question of women and the ordained ministry? It was not the question they were looking at, and the culture of their day was not demanding a decision, as it had not been sensitised to this issue. Similarly, the church’s stand against the practice of slavery was still in the future.

The reformers had a range of opinions on the subject of women. Calvin, for example, abandoned the view of woman as ‘a defective male’. Calvin is the only 16th century theologian who viewed women’s silence in church as determined by human rather than divine law. Calvin did not ordain women, but envisaged it as a possibility for the church in the future.

Martin Luther had no time for the widespread misogyny and denigration of women common to his age. His positive view of woman did not however lead him, or the church that followed him, to ordain women despite his statements about the priesthood of all believers. In 1523 he wrote
…there is no other proclamation of the Word than that which is common to all… no other priesthood than that which is spiritual and universal… the ministry of the Word is the highest office in the church… it is unique and belongs to all Christians, not only by right but by command.

Luther limited the pastorate to men for the following reasons:

St Paul says in Gal. 3:28Gal. 3:28
English: World English Bible - WEB

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

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, you must pay no attention to distinctions when you want to look at Christians. You must not say: “This is a man or a woman; this is a servant or a master; this person is old or young”. They are all alike and only a spiritual people. Therefore they are all priests. All may proclaim God’s word, except that, as St. Paul teaches in 1 Cor 14:341 Cor 14:34
English: World English Bible - WEB

34 let your wives keep silent in the assemblies, for it has not been permitted for them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as the law also says.

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, women should not speak in the congregation. They should let the men preach because God commands them to be obedient to their husbands. God does not interfere with the arrangement. But He makes no distinction in the matter of authority. If, however, only women were present and no men, as in nunneries, then one of the women might be authorized to preach.

Because of his attitude to the priesthood of believers, it would appear that had Luther read the texts in relation to their cultural context, he would have admitted both sexes to the ordained ministry.

Finally, Paul called himself an apostle because he had seen the risen Lord and was commissioned by him to preach the Gospel. Women were the first to see the risen Christ and were commissioned by him to go and tell the disciples, making them (the women) the ‘apostles to the apostles’. How can the church now restrict the preaching office to men?

Questions for group discussion:

  1. Lutheran churches in every continent in the world, except Australia, ordain women. What do you think are the reasons for the Lutheran Church in Australia being unwilling to ordain women? Your pastor would be able to fill you in on various aspects of the relevant church history.
  2. Discuss how changes in Australian society since World War II have had an impact on the role of women including in the church at large. For example, you could consider the effect of:
    1. mass communication decreasing our sense of isolation from the
      rest of the world;
    2. increased education for women;
    3. changing social attitudes and cultural values.
  3. From your own experience of men and women can you see any reason why women should not be ordained?
Maurice Schild,
February, 1996
(footnotes omitted)

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