Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

A NEW WAY OF SEEING

I was baptised at five weeks of age, and in forty years of growing up in the Lutheran church, I accepted unquestioningly the restricted role of women in the Church. Even when I became interested in theology in the 1970s, and took some subjects at Lutheran Teachers’ College, it simply did not occur to me to question the status quo of the male-only pastorate. Although there had been some debate about women’s ordination at that time, I was not interested. I remember seeing a woman presiding at a worship service on television, and actually feeling repelled by the idea of a woman ‘usurping’ a position which had always been exclusively male.In 1990, I decided that the time was right for me to do some part-time study. I remembered how much I had loved my six months’ exposure to theology in 1977, so enrolled in two subjects at Luther Seminary (Luther Campus, at that time) in February 1991. Four weeks or so before I began to study, I thought seriously for the first time about the status of women in the Church.

The catalyst for this change was a radio program about the World Council of Churches Congress in Canberra, Australia. It was broadcasting some of the women participants’ reflections on the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10.

They were saying that Jesus and Mary could have both responded to Martha’s request for Mary’s help, and all three could have prepared the meal together. At the time I thought, ‘But Jesus did not choose to do that. Why? Then came a rare flash of insight. Jesus wanted Mary to continue doing what Jesus stated was her good choice. That choice was to do what only men did traditionally, namely, to sit at the feet of a rabbi, and to receive theological guidance. I felt stunned. Until that moment, I had been doubtful about my decision to study theology. I was unsure of my motives, and wondered if I could justify myself by ‘indulging’ in the study of theology. After all, I wouldn’t be using my knowledge as would a pastor of the Church. I had prayed that God would give me guidance, but had not received an answer. But now I felt such a burst of joy and energy. Not only was it alright to study at Luther Seminary, but it was most important that I did so. Jesus wants women as well as men to be theologians!

The next affirmation of my new path in life came at a Justice Seminar at Luther Campus in April of that year. The three areas addressed were the rural crisis, justice for Australian Aboriginal people, and justice for women in the LCA. In attending the latter, I was listening, for the first time, to speakers advocating the ordination of women. Among them was Pastor Joyce Scheitel, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The grace of Jesus shone in her and through her words. It was a very special experience.

During the seminar, the participants also had the opportunity of examining some scriptural texts from a new perspective. The text that my small group studied was the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. The question was asked, ‘Why did Jesus not tell the woman that she also came under the umbrella of God’s grace? Why did she, and not Jesus, tell the disciples and others, that even the ‘dogs’ are allowed to eat the crumbs from the children’s table’? It struck me then that by goading her, Jesus was encouraging her to speak out the gospel message, instead of Jesus himself delivering it. This outcast woman was actually ‘preaching’ to the chosen ones, the disciples, men of Israel! In the end, Jesus acknowledged her great faith, and granted her request. In the face of tradition and Jewish beliefs, Jesus ushered in the new era of the kingdom of God, in which ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28Galatians 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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Since that time I have heard and read many more arguments both for and against the ordination of women. But for me there is nothing more powerful than the words and actions of Christ himself, who, full of grace and truth, has freed us from the dead hand of the law. What is it that prevents called and gifted women from becoming servants (because that is what pastors are – we don’t have Lutheran ‘priests’) who preach God’s Word and administer the Sacraments to their congregations? It is the legalistic interpretation of two verses in two letters written to two ancient congregations which is causing so many people so much pain. We need to ask the question, ‘What would Jesus say about our persistence in allowing such legalism to crush his people thousands of years later’?

Some argue that it is only today’s culture which is influencing Christian women to want to serve in a way which always has been exclusively male. I disagree with that. A number of elderly women (including one pastor’s wife) have confided to me that they had always felt called to be pastors, but had no way of telling even their husbands about their experiences because that might cause pain and confusion to the other person. How many women throughout our two thousand years of Christianity have suffered in similar prisons of silence? How many times in history has the failure to acknowledge the call of women to serve in the public ministry resulted in human resistance to the gracious work of the Holy Spirit? Only God knows the answer.

Let us now turn the page of history, shake off its shackles, and joyfully welcome women to the pastorate as we repeat Peter’s Pentecost message,

And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
That I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
And your young men shall see visions,
And your old men shall dream dreams;
Yes, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days
I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

Joel 2:28,29Joel 2:28,29
English: World English Bible - WEB

28 “It will happen afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; And your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions. 29 And also on the servants and on the handmaids in those days, I will pour out my Spirit.

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, Acts 2:17,18Acts 2:17,18
English: World English Bible - WEB

17 ‘It will be in the last days, says God, That I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions. Your old men will dream dreams. 18 Yes, and on my servants and on my handmaidens in those days, I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy.

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Margaret Hunt

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