Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

TEXT AND CONTEXT

The Scriptural authority for the case against women’s ordination is based on I Cor. 14:34-35r. 14:34-35
English: World English Bible - WEB

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and I Tim. 2:11-15. In stating the case for the ordination of women, I too accept these passages as inspired by God, and therefore authoritative.

But how is it possible for someone to accept them as such and still be pro women’s ordination when the words of St. Paul are so clear? The answer lies in that, in interpreting Scripture one must look not only at what the words mean literally in isolation, but also at their context and their purpose or goal.

The context of I Cor. 14 which will be the main focus, was briefly, that the worship was disorderly and bringing the new faith into disrepute. Paul’s solution to this problem included the silencing of women (wives)1.

Those who oppose women’s ordination say that women should therefore remain silent because the texts say so; and the texts say so because for women to teach and preach the apostolic word in public is contrary to God’s order2.

Those who favour the ordination of women say that Paul commanded the silencing of women for the sake of orderliness and cultural appropriateness, so that the Gospel be heard and not publicly discredited. To achieve these goals, in the Corinthian situation, silencing the women was necessary.

In today’s society, public speaking by women is neither culturally offensive nor conducive to disorder. Public preaching of the Gospel by women does not therefore discredit that Gospel today. Some say not to allow women to preach is more likely to discredit the church and its Gospel. In other words, the goals of I Cor. 14 may be more effectively achieved today by doing the very opposite of what was necessary then.

Because this may look like twisting the truth, let us take another example: Psalm 15. The psalmist asks “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?”

One answer is those who lend money without charging interest. Does this mean that the Lutheran Laypersons League (LLL) by charging interest on loans is ungodly? We obviously need to look at both the context and the goal of the text. In the psalmist’s time, the rich lent money at high interest to the poor when they were in desperate straits, and then foreclosed on them when they were least able to pay. The money lenders were ‘loan sharks’. The goal of the psalm was a better deal for the poor, and the means to achieve this was to have no interest on loans.

In summary:

  1. The context
    Oppression of the poor resulting in loss of land and freedom
  2. The means
    No interest charged
  3. The goal
    So that the poor may have a fairer deal

The goal is the significant point of the text.

Now let us look at the LLL example:

  1. The context
    Manse dwelling pastors or their widows have no roof over their heads when they retire/die.
  2. The means
    LLL lends money at 5% interest for housing
  3. The goal
    So that retired pastors or their widows can have a roof over their heads.

If the LLL were to take God’s Word literally and not charge interest, its lending power to pastors and their widows would be severely restricted as capital would soon run out. By charging interest, that is, by doing the opposite of what God’s Word says literally, the LLL by fulfilling its intention obeys God’s Word.

Let’s look again at the context of I Cor. 14. It seems that the unrestricted behaviour of women in public worship, speaking and interrupting even their husbands as the Spirit allegedly moved them, resulted in chaotic worship and cultural offence.

Already in I Cor. 11 Paul refers to shameful, disgraceful, and dishonourable behaviour. One can assume that Paul in I Cor. 14 wanted to silence women because their behaviour was also seen as shameful and dishonourable.

Cultural norms are extremely powerful in all societies and are the fabric that holds society together. In Aboriginal or Asian societies for example, there are strong taboos relating to who may speak to whom and how and when and where. To break these taboos can both shock and alienate.

Throughout the Epistles, both Paul and Peter emphasise that Christians must not do anything that will bring them and therefore the Gospel into disrepute. They know only too well the readiness of people to believe the worst about any new, minority religion.

But does a woman pastor today, who preaches a well-crafted sermon in a well-ordered liturgy, bring the Church into disrepute in the eyes of the community? Is the silencing of women in our cultural situation therefore necessary to achieve the goals of I Cor. 14: 26-36r. 14: 26-36
English: World English Bible - WEB

26 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. TR places verses after as verses .

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: namely, orderliness, sharing the Gospel, encouraging all, and bringing peace?

But what about verses 37-40 where Paul writes that his words are a command of the Lord? Surely, what the Lord commands for his church is for all time?

In terms of goals, yes. But in terms of means, as we have already seen, not necessarily. To use a radical example: imagine that a pastor of the LCA, to illustrate that it is not outward dress but inner godliness that counts, conducts the service in the nude! Would the President merely say that what the pastor did was inadvisable? He would, I hope, dismiss him from office (that is “not recognise” him – I Cor. 14 : 38) confident that he was carrying out the command of the Lord.

Yet there could be a situation where administering the sacraments in the nude would not be contrary to the Lord’s will. For example, had the Gospel reached the shores of Australia in the early centuries of the history of the church (we know it got as far as China), in all likelihood an Aboriginal tribal elder would have held the office of the public ministry and would have preached naked – entirely appropriate for Aboriginal culture at that time.

So, the command of the Lord taken literally in one place and time may not be valid in another, except in terms of its goal.

My comments also apply to I Tim. 2 where in verse 4, Paul outlined goals: that all may be saved and come to know the truth. The testimony of the lifestyle of Christians is an important means to achieving these goals. The words “women are to be modest and sensible about their clothes and to dress properly” (v.9) relate to cultural appropriateness. We can assume that the same purpose lies behind v.11: women should learn in silence.

Thus to ordain women is not to ignore these texts, or to declare them irrelevant, but to take them seriously and regard them as authoritative in terms of the goal that “everything must be done in a proper and orderly way”.

Questions for group discussion:

  1. Why are some customs in your congregation, which were previously considered to be inappropriate for women, now common practice? Eg women wearing hats; pregnant unmarried girls making public confession; women publicly purified following childbirth; women not:
    - receiving communion if obviously pregnant,
    - reading the lessons, – distributing communion, voting,
    - being synodical representative,
    - being congregational treasurer or Sunday School superintendent.
  2. Can you think of other customs that have discriminated against women or restricted their participation in congregational life?
  3. Can you think of customs that have discriminated against men or restricted their participation in congregational life?
  4. If you knew that all the restrictions related to the above customs were based on biblical prohibition would that change your view about any of them? On what grounds do you make that distinction? (You may need to check with your pastor for the relevant biblical references.)

The writer asks the question

“Does a woman pastor today, who preaches a well-crafted sermon in a well-ordered liturgy, bring the Church into disrepute?”

What is your opinion? Share your ideas in the group.

Rolph Mayer,  March, 1996
Previously published in
Lutheran Theological Journal 31, Aug 1997, pages 82-88
reprinted with permission

Footnotes

  1. It is not clear from the Greek text whether women in general or only wives are to be silent. [return top ↩]
  2. There is a divine order and worship should reflect that divine order which is valid for all time. Therefore, regardless of time or cultural change, that divinely ordained order must be preserved [return top ↩]

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