Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia


Interpreting the Bible

How do we know what we know? How do we know about God, about God’s will, about living as God’s people? Our first learning is from those who incarnate God for us by showing us love and talking of a loving God — our parents, maybe a pastor or teacher, a special friend, a partner. We also learn from being in the community of faith and participating in the liturgy and ritual of the church. We learn from the direct teaching of our parents, our Sunday School teachers, our pastors. And we learn from our own life experiences as we walk in relationship with God. Alongside all of these, the Bible shows us God’s will. We believe it to be ‘divinely inspired’, given to us by our loving God. But there is a problem.

The Bible doesn’t always have clear answers to the questions we ask. Sometimes it will say nothing on a given subject and to obtain guidance we need to apply principles and understandings from other issues. Sometimes it will say something in one place, and then show a different, or even contradictory point of view in another. Because this is the case we need a set of guidelines on how to interpret the Bible.

There is no single set of guidelines accepted by all the theologians of our church. The guidelines that I use suggest that the God-intended Biblical message is most likely to be heard when

  • the basic moral and theological principles of the whole Bible are given priority over specific statements that seem to contradict or sit in tension either with these principles or with other specific texts;
  • the historical and cultural contexts of specific texts are considered seriously;
  • we pay attention to the diversity within Scripture, so that the ‘conversation’ that occurs on a given issue between the various books is listened to, and if a choice has to be made, priority is given to the message of the Gospels because they give direct witness to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Stating these same guidelines from a negative perspective, the God-intended Biblical message is least likely to be heard when:

  • specific texts on a given subject are used legalistically to silence the over-arching moral emphases of the Bible (for example 1 Timothy 6:1-61 Timothy 6:1-6
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    6 1 Let as many as are bondservants under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and the doctrine not be blasphemed. 2 Those who have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brothers, but rather let them serve them, because those who partake of the benefit are believing and beloved. Teach and exhort these things. 3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine, and doesn’t consent to sound words, the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, 4 he is conceited, knowing nothing, but obsessed with arguments, disputes, and word battles, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, 5 constant friction of people of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. Withdraw yourself from such. 6 But godliness with contentment is great gain.

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    on slavery, given priority over ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, to argue that slavery should be continued);
  • numerous texts, taken from here and there in the Bible, are sewn together into a patchwork quilt which doesn’t take account of the different cultural fabrics and historical textures of each patch;
  • it is assumed that all texts are of equal significance and must be harmonized into one, logical truth.

While each of us accepts the Bible and its teaching, in the task of understanding it and applying it to our lives we all begin from different places. Because we are immersed in our own society, we cannot always see the things we have learned from the society around us. Because they have become ingrained in us, we cannot always remember why we believe certain things.

Careful listening is needed if we are trying to understand the point of view of another person. Words may not mean the same thing to different people. For example, two people may say that they interpret the Bible ‘literally’: one may mean by this that they try to discern the intended meaning of the author, which implies having an understanding of the culture into which it was written; another may mean they interpret it according to the meaning that seems natural to them.

The Bible and ordination

It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore the Why? of ordination. The Bible talks about leadership and ministry in a variety of places, and there are stories of particular leaders and specific people in specific ministries, but the practice of ordination is not something that the Bible specifically addresses. For the purpose of this paper it is accepted that ordination is the way the church sets aside people for public ministry.

What do we know about men and women in relation to God?

The early chapters of Genesis record stories of the beginning of humanity, which we understand to hold truth about God, the world, and our relationship to both. In the first creation account we read, Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image …” … So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God were they created, male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:26, 27Genesis 1:26, 27
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26 God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them.

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, NRSV) The story makes the claim that the woman and the man are created in the image of God. Both are blessed, both are given stewardship over the earth.

In the second creation account we read that the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Later we read Then the Lord God said It is not good that the man should be alone: I will make a helper as his partner (Genesis 2:7Genesis 2:7
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7 Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

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& 18, NRSV). Translating from the Hebrew words into English, some of the meaning of the story is lost. The Hebrew tells us that the ‘adam is formed from the ‘adamah; the groundling is formed from the ground, the earthling from the earth. Later, when the helper (‘ezer) is formed, the groundling becomes ish and ishah, male and female, husband and wife.

That the companion is to be ezer, “helper”, has been used as an argument that a woman’s role is merely to assist her husband. The story is not saying this, but speaking instead about relationship, companionship and mutuality. The same word is used also of God; God is our ‘ezer.

What do we know about God in relation to male and femaleness?

As we know that women and men are created in the image of God, we know that God is not male or female. Sometimes it is hard to remember this when we refer to God almost exclusively as him and he, and with words like Lord, King, Master and Father. It is useful to recall that there are also feminine images of God in the Bible. The image of God as the one who conceives, gives birth and nurtures young may be found in Isaiah 42:14Isaiah 42:14
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14 I have long time held my peace; I have been still, and refrained myself: now will I cry out like a travailing woman; I will gasp and pant together.

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, Job 38:29Job 38:29
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29 Out of whose womb came the ice? The gray frost of the sky, who has given birth to it?

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, Isaiah 66:13Isaiah 66:13
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13 As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

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and Deuteronomy 32:18Deuteronomy 32:18
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18 Of the Rock that became your father, you are unmindful, Have forgotten God who gave you birth.

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. Luke 15:8-10Luke 15:8-10
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8 Or what woman, if she had ten drachma A drachma coin was worth about 2 days wages for an agricultural laborer. coins, if she lost one drachma coin, wouldn’t light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she found it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost.’ 10 Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting.”

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is the story of the woman searching for the lost treasure. The images of God from the stories that ‘sandwich’ this one are familiar: the caring shepherd and the waiting father. Less familiar is the image of God with a broom.

Going back to the Hebrew language again, we can also see the feminine dimension of God’s nature in the words for the Holy Spirit (Ruach Hakodesh) and for God’s visible presence among the children of Israel (Shekinah). Both of these terms are feminine gender terms, reinforcing that God is not simply masculine.

Some people have felt that men are somehow more ‘God-like’ than women, and therefore that women should not serve as leaders in public ministry. This is not a Biblical concept. We can only catch a glimpse of the true nature of God from the images available to us, and we confine and limit our understanding if we look only at the masculine images. We limit our understanding of God, and we limit our understanding of ourselves.

Women in the Old Testament

Alongside the great and vulnerable men of the Old Testament are great and vulnerable women. Miriam provides leadership to the Exodus people together with her brothers. Deborah is a judge of Israel. Ruth stands with David as an ancestor of Jesus.

Jesus and Women

Jesus demonstrates in his actions and relationships a respect for all people, regardless of gender. Stories of women being healed and asking for healing for others sit together with similar stories featuring men. He uses parables from the daily lives of women as well as of men. Jesus discusses theology with men and with women ñ remember the Samaritan woman and Mary (Martha’s sister).
While the twelve apostles were all men, a larger group of disciples, men and women, travelled with him and shared in the ministry (eg Luke 8:1-3Luke 8:1-3
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8 1 It happened soon afterwards, that he went about through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God. With him were the twelve, 2 and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out; 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuzas, Herod’s steward; Susanna; and many others; who ministered to them TR reads “him” instead of “them” from their possessions.

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). Both men and women are present throughout the passion accounts, and together men and women accompany Jesus body to the grave. In each of the Gospel accounts, it is women who are first given the news of the resurrection, to be shared with everyone.

Women and the early church

From the glimpses of the work of the early church that we catch by reading the letters of the New Testament, we know that women as well as men were actively involved in leadership and in the support of the Christian movement. Paul relied on women for practical and spiritual support in his missionary journeying. Lydia’s house, for example, was the base for the first congregation. In Corinth, Priscilla worked as a colleague of Paul. Phoebe is described as deacon, friend and helper.

It is also clear that the liberating power of the risen Christ, in his followers, led to situations which grated on some of the people in the congregations, and perhaps caused concern regarding the perception of those outside of the church. There are some passages in Paul’s writings, often quoted as part of an anti-women’s ordination discussion, which may be examples of this (eg 1 Corinthians 14:34-351 Corinthians 14:34-35
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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. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to chatter in the assembly.

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). As was stated at the beginning of this paper, where there is an apparent contradiction between specific texts and overarching principles, the overall themes of the Bible are given precedence.

It does seem clear that despite local difficulties, the early church shared the vision written in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3:27,28) As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

What is the nature of ordained ministry?

Another of the over-arching principles found in Scripture is that the leadership to which God calls is a leadership of humility and service. The pastor who proclaims God’s word and administers the sacraments is doing so as a representative of Christ. The style of leadership is clearly demonstrated by Jesus when he washes the feet of the disciples: For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:15John 13:15
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15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

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On the basis of my understanding of the wholeness (and brokenness) of humanity in God’s sight, of a God who epitomises the best of maleness and femaleness while being beyond either, and of the nature of the church and of service to that church, I believe that God calls women into the service of ordained ministry, as well as men.

Tanya Wittwer

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