The Ordination of Women

By Martin R. Noland

I.  Introduction

When discussing this topic, it is easy to get off on tangents, through the lack of careful definition of the question.  The question is simply "May women become ordained to the public ministry of the Christian church?"

The term "may" indicates that the question is about a matter of permission. Christ grants or withholds permission by establishing criteria for the public ministry, through his example and his apostles' teaching and example.      These criteria are stated in summary in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.  These passages make clear that not just any man is qualified to serve as a pastor.  Gender is only one of several essential criteria. 

The term "ordained" indicates that a person is vested with ministerial or priestly authority, whether or not the term "ordained" is used or any term of clerical office is used.

The phrase "public ministry" indicates that the position is directed toward people in a general way, usually in a local community, and is not limited to a single family, a "small group," women, or children.      "Public" also means that the vesting into office is done before the assembly, implying their consent, regardless of who is responsible for the appointment to office.

The phrase "Christian church" indicates that the question is not relevant to other religions, since the criteria and authority originates in Jesus.

II.  What is Not At Issue

A)  The "superiority" of either gender is not at issue.  "Superiority" here means that one is of higher rank, quality, merit, or importance.  The New Testament does not teach that either gender is "superior" in this sense.  Jesus religion is therefore strictly egalitarian in this sense.

B)  The eligibility of women for other jobs, public office (such as President or Queen), or to vote is not at issue.  The New Testament does not address this issue, nor set up any prohibitions in this respect.

C)  The eligibility of women to vote in church assemblies as lay members of a congregation is not at issue.  Voters are not individually vested with authority, as is the case with ministers or officers, therefore they do not "exercise such authority."

D)  The relationship between husband and wife is not at issue.  This is a unique relationship, as is obvious, and is defined primarily by mutual service (e.g., Eph 5:21).

The subordination (hypotasso) of wife to husband (e.g., Eph 5:22) is a matter of those instances where decisions come to a "vote."  If there is not unanimity, or compromise, there has to be some way to decide the issue.  This may be compared to the U.S. election system. Its "electoral college" provides a clear and certain decision, when the election count is uncertain.  The subordination of wife to husband provides for a clear and certain decision when necessary.  This subordination is also to be distinguished from the general obedience which children owe their parents (e.g., Eph 6:1).

This relationship between husband and wife does not mean that any or all women are subordinate to any or all men, or that any other sort of subordination can be derived from it.

E)  The issue is not a matter of human rights.  Human rights are what all people are granted by their creator at birth, namely, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (Thomas Jefferson).  Notice that the Founding Fathers wisely did not include "equality" as a human right.  The demand for egalite as a right led to the French Revolution, the guillotine, the Communist revolutions, and their genocides in the 20th century.

What is a right?  It is "something to which one has a just claim, as a power or privilege" (Webster New Collegiate Dictionary).  You have no right or claim to own or do anything in my home, unless it is your personal property.  Since the church is Jesus' property (e.g., "on this rock I will build my church" Mt 16:18), no one has a "right" to own or do anything there, unless Jesus gives permission.  If you claim a "right" which Jesus has not granted, then you are really disputing his ownership and his right to be Lord.

III.  The Definition of the Public Ministry

Lutherans follow their confessions when seeking definitions.  "No one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call," Augsburg Confession XIV (German text, Kolb-Wengert, 46-47).  "Administration of sacraments" includes baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Keys.

This defines for Lutherans the position of "pastor," which includes the terms "bishop," "minister," and "presbyter/elder" in the New Testament.  Lutherans do not have to argue about what particular behaviors or actions belong to this position, because by affirming the Augsburg Confession they affirm this definition. The position essentially is someone who will "publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments."

Lutherans agree that this position will not be filled "without a proper call."  What does "a proper call" mean? "Call" means that a person not intrude himself into the office, but take a position only by invitation (German Beruf; Latin vocatus). "Proper" (German ordentlichen; Latin rite) means to fill the position in accordance with the divine commands and institution, i.e., the Holy Scriptures. 

IV. What Are Those Scriptures?

A.  I Timothy 2:11-12.  "Let a woman learn in silence with all submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent."

I Timothy 2:8 indicates that the context is the church, i.e., the gathering of the believers around Word and Sacrament.  We should observe that the women are supposed to learn, but the method of learning is by hearing, not by speaking or debate.  "I permit no women" indicates that permission is not granted.  "To teach" applies to both teaching and preaching."

"Have authority" (authenteo, Greek) in the Greek literature refers to the exercise of all types of authority by a person vested with such authority (see Koestenberger, et. al.)  It is a general term, thus may encompass all forms of authority exercised by an officer of the church.  Because of the context of the passage, the prohibition may be limited to situations of gathering around Word and/or Sacrament.  "Over men" indicates that the prohibition does not apply to women's ministry toward women or children.

A woman is not permitted by Paul, and thus by Christ, to "publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments," either through ordination, other vesting, or on an occasional basis.  The "priestly" authority of leading public prayers and worship is also not permitted, because that would be to "have authority over men" in the realm of worship and prayer.

A more difficult question is whether or not the holding of another public office in the church is also permitted or excluded by this passage.  This refers to the traditional LC-MS offices of congregational president and elder, as well as certain types of synodical offices, due to the type of general authority which those offices have and the vesting into office that accompanies them.  The LC-MS Commission on Theology and Church Relations arrived at two different opinions on the matter (see "The Service of Women in Congregational and Synodical Offices" and "Dissenting Opinion on Women in Congregational Offices," in 1995 Convention Workbook, pp. 310-313).

Since traditionally in the LC-MS, the offices of congregational president and elders have some oversight over public teaching, preaching, administration of sacraments, and worship, women would not be permitted to hold these offices.  Synodical offices will have to be evaluated on a case by case basis.  In other church denominations, where only the pastor has "oversight over public teaching, preaching, administration of sacraments, and worship," and he is accountable for this only to the voters assembly or bishop, the offices of congregational president and elder could theoretically be held by women, since in those cases there is no spiritual jurisdiction.  The Missouri Synod historically has avoided giving the pastor sole responsibility for these areas, because of the Saxon's experience with Stephan, the Missouri Synod's conflict with Grabau, and because giving the pastor the sole right to excommunicate runs counter to the Gospel (Mt 18:17).

B.  I Corinthians 14:34-35.  "Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  If they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church."

This refers to public speech in the assembly gathered around Word and Sacrament.  It does not refer to other meetings of the believers.  It is not a command for the women to "keep quiet" so others can hear.  The word for "speak" here is laleo, which refers specifically to public speech (e.g., lectures, orations, sermons, etc.).

With the phrase "if they want to learn something," Paul is referring to the practice of the synagogue, which allowed time for Questions and Answers after a sermon.  This was apparently followed by the New Testament church.  Women were not allowed to participate in this Q & A, which often turned into debate or an opportunity for a protagonist to ask leading questions.

The application is the same as I Timothy 2:11-12, except that it may also apply to the reading of the Scriptures, since the command "keep silent" appears to also rule that out.

V.  What Scriptural Reasons Are Given for the Prohibition?

A.  I Timothy 2:13-14.  "For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived fell into transgression."

There are two separate reasons given here.  The first is the principle of "primogeniture," i.e., that Adam was formed first before Eve.  This has become known as the "order of creation," first being termed this by the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions (see Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, pp. 427-431, 394, 429). Up until the nineteenth century, the principle of primogeniture was the standard law for dynastic governments and estates, i.e., that the first-born son would receive the family estate (or crown, in the case of kings).  It is now considered an archaic tradition, which means that it doesn't seem to be a good "reason" to prohibit women's ordination. That doesn't mean that it isn't a good reason, but that it isn't persuasive for many people.

The second reason given here is that Eve was deceived.  The emphasis is not on the "transgression," as if women were more sinful, more prone to sin, or more culpable for the original sin. Some Christian theologians have emphasized the "transgression," such as Tertullian ("On the Apparel of Women," Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4:33) and Chrysostom ("Homilies on Timothy," Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 13:432-436).  Protestant traditionalists who cite the Early Church theologians as authorities might be tempted to think the same.

The point of I Timothy 2:14 is that Eve "was deceived."  This indicates an active agent, i.e., the devil, who fooled her and Adam.  She was deceived because she failed to recognize the error in the devil's teaching. Paul's argument means that believing women, with Eve as their prototype, are as a group less capable of discerning religious or theological errors than believing men.  Furthermore, the religious aptitude of "discernment" in men is complemented by the religious aptitude of "faith" in women (e.g., the women at the tomb compared to the Twelve).  In a marriage, these two aptitudes complement each other, as the woman encourages the man who may be prone to skepticism and doubt, while the man warns the woman who may be to prone listening to "other Gospels" or "other voices."

This does not mean that women as a group are "more gullible" or less capable of discerning error in other areas of life. This is a specifically religious aptitude of discernment, not a "natural aptitude." One of the chief purposes of the pastor (Greek episcopos; means "shepherd") is to discern and warn his flock about religious errors (e.g., II Tim 4:1-5). An owner of sheep would not hire a "near-sighted" shepherd, whose chief job is to protect the sheep from predators who are in the outer perimeter of the flock.  It is theoretically possible for a believing woman, who is otherwise orthodox, to serve as a pastor and show talents in every other aspect of the office, but because she lacks "discernment of error," the devil as "a roaring lion" (I Peter 5:8) will slowly but surely devour her flock. When she realizes what has happened, it will be too late.

B.  I Corinthians 14:40.  "Let all things be done decently and in order."

This explanatory clause follows a list of several rules for church practices, including the preceding verses 34-35.  It is a present imperative, thus not merely a nice suggestion.  "Decently" (Greek eusxamonos) means "decorum, propriety" etc.  "In order" (Greek taxin) means "according to a fixed order, in an orderly way, or according to rank," etc.  Here "order" is not a matter of appearances or neatness, but "doing things the right way." It means that "religious practice" should follow "doctrine."

VI.  What Scriptures Appear to Say Something Else

A.  Galatians 3:28 "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."

This is the most popular passage today for advocates of women's ordination. This does not say that everyone is equal, whatever that would mean.  It means that though varied and different, we are one in Jesus.  We are one church, under his authority and Lordship.  Those who argue against, or practice against the prohibition of the ordination of women, destroy the unity of the church and are in fact schismatics!          

B.  I Corinthians 11:2-16 "The head of every man is Christ; the head of a woman is her husband; and the head of Christ is God.  Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head."

This passage was used by Tertullian, the early church father, to accept the role of prophetesses in the church (see "Against Marcion," Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, p. 446). He later became a Montanist, granting full ministerial rights to the prophetesses Priscilla and Maximilla on the basis of this passage.  Origen, a later church father, rejected both Montanism and Tertullian's interpretation of this passage (see Origen's "Fragments on I Corinthians," in Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (1976), 28-29).  Origen argued that I Cor 11:2-16 referred to private prayers and prophesy in the home.

The prayer shawl (not a veil) was intended to keep the private "praying" and "prophesying" of women subordinate to the authority of their hubands.  The shawl was understood to be a cultural symbol of "headship." Augsburg Confession XXVIII, 53-56 (Kolb-Wengert, 99-101), notes that such head covering is not mandated today, though the principle of "headship" is not abrogated by changes in customs.

My opinion of the proper application of this passage (i.e., I Cor 11:2-16) is that it refers to religious functions in the home, since women are permitted to speak at home or in private when "praying and prophesying," but they are not permitted to speak in the public assembly. The principle is that, when these things are done by women, they should be done in a way that does not dishonor their husbands, so that they are still recognized to be the "head of the house."

VII.  Why Do the Scriptures Decide the Issue?

The Scriptures decide the issue of women's ordination, because we are Lutherans.  We follow Luther, who at Worms declared "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures or by clear reason . . . I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God" (Luther's Works 32:112).

The papal representative recognized that Scriptural authority was the root of the Lutheran "error" when he replied to Luther's speech at Worms "If it were granted that whoever contradicts the councils and the common understanding of the church must be overcome by Scripture passages, we will have nothing in Christianity that is certain or decided" (Luther's Works 32:113).                           The Lutherans were more consistent in their application of the Scripture principle, since Luther was willing to stand on a single, clear passage at Marburg, when opposed by Zwingli.  Zwingli wanted to interpret one Bible passage with another, thereby confusing both.  Luther sought to interpret each Bible passage according to its immediate context, according to its proper grammar, and its historical setting.  This was the "historical-grammatical method" of interpretation of ancient texts devised during the Renaissance, and still upheld by The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and its associated churches around the world.

 The Roman Catholic church will appeal to tradition, natural law (Thomism), councils, and the edicts of the popes.  The Eastern Orthodox church will simply appeal to tradition.  The Anabaptist churches and their heirs, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers), Pentecostals, and charismatics, appeal to new prophesies of the Holy Spirit, who might announce how God has "changed his mind."  The practice of women ministers first made its appearance among the Quakers.  Margaret Fell, the wife of Quaker founder, George Fox, published a pamphlet in 1660 titled "Women's Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed . . ."

 Among churches influenced by Liberal Protestant thought, the Bible is not seen as an oracular text of perennial relevance, but as a cultural and historical product.  Therefore any Bible passage may prove, in time, to be irrelevant and anachronistic.  This is the most common argument given today given in favor of the ordination of women. The problem is that if one part of Scripture is irrelevant and anachronistic, then any part may become so.

 Therefore, as I witnessed at Union Theological Seminary, New York, persons who believe that the Scripture passages that prohibit women's ordination are irrelevant and anachronistic can easily be persuaded that the Scripture passages that prohibit homosexuality are irrelevant and anachronistic.  This is why many of these churches are moving toward the acceptance of homosexuality.  The persons in those churches who oppose homosexuality have no argument against it, since they have destroyed the authority of Scripture with their acceptance of women's ordination.

 VIII.  What About the "Orders of Creation"?

 The "order of creation" argument, as noted above, was first stated in the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century.  Luther's idea for this is somewhat different. In his "Confessions Concerning Christ's Supper," (Luther's Works 37:364-365), Luther compares marriage, the civil government, and the pastor's office to monastic orders.  "Orders of creation" according to Luther does not mean "hierarchy" of creation, or primogeniture, but God's particular rules or institutions for a social order. An appeal to the "orders of creation" can be confusing, if it is not specifically referring to I Timothy 2:13.  Furthermore, since primogeniture is not generally accepted, such an appeal can lack persuasive effect.  It is better to stick with the Scriptures.

 IX.  History of the Ordination of Women

 Outside of the Society of Friends, the ordination of women began among sectarian Protestants in the nineteenth century: Christian Connection Church (1810, ancestor of Christian Church-Disciples of Christ); Universalist Church (1863, non-Trinitarian and not "Christian"); Salvation Army (1865); Methodist Protestant Church (1880, later merged into United Methodists); Cumberland Presbyterian Church (1888); Church of God-Cleveland, TN (1909, a Pentecostal church); some Mennonites (1911); Assemblies of God (1914); Congregationalist Church of England and Wales (1917); some Baptist churches (1920s); United Church of Canada (1936); state church of Norway (1938); Anglican church of Hong Kong (1944); Czech Hussite church (1947); state church of Denmark (1948); United Presbyterian (1956); Methodist Church (1956);  state church of Sweden (1960); , German territorial Lutheran churches (1960s); Lutheran Church in America and American Lutheran Church (1970); Episcopalians (1974); Anglican church in Canada (1976); state church of Finland (1988); Church of England (1992); Christian Reformed Church (1995).

 X.  For Additional Reading

Commission on Theology and Church Relations, "Women in the Church: Scriptural Principles and Ecclesiastical Practice," 1985 (also see its bibliography)

Commission on Theology and Church Relations, "The Service of Women in Congregational and Synodical Offices," 1994, with "Dissenting Opinion", found in the 1995 LCMS Convention Workbook.

Koestenberger, Schreiner, Baldwin, Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995) (also see its bibliography).

Dr. Martin Noland is the director of the Concordia Historical Institute.


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