Project Wittenberg

Women in the Church
Scriptural Principles and Ecclesial Practice

Part III

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations
of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

September 1985

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How does one address the wide range of practical questions that arise in dealing with the topic of women in the church today? Lutherans recognize that the "prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged" (FC Ep Rule and Norm 1). This article of faith remains true also with respect to the relationship between man and woman. God has revealed His will regarding such a relationship in His Word. To be sure, the political and social milieu of a culture influences the church and always will. Nevertheless, a specific sociological "mind- set" must never be allowed to be decisive for expressing theological judgments.

At the same time, principles alone do not describe reality. Each situation combines many details in a unique way. Faithful, consistent application of Biblical principles requires that each distinctive situation be carefully assessed. We must be sure that we truly understand both the situation or problem with which we are dealing and the full range of Scriptural principles which should be brought to bear on it. This is especially true of the question of the service of women in the church.

While it is impossible to deal with all the practical questions which arise in individual congregations, there are a number of inquiries which the Commission has received or which have been introduced in other contexts that can be addressed briefly in a study of this kind. The purpose of this section of the report is to suggest one approach for using the principles and theses enunciated in Part II and to illustrate that approach through succinct responses to the questions of 1) woman's ordination to the pastoral office; 2) woman suffrage; and 3) additional practical applications for situations which emerge from the contemporary life of the church.

A. Applying Scriptural Principles: An Approach

James Hurley has proposed three preliminary guidelines for addressing specific questions related to women in the church. [54] These suggested guidelines are by no means exhaustive, but they do provide a helpful frame of reference for approaching the pertinent issues.

Some practical questions about the service of women in the church may be resolved on the basis of a clear mandate of Scripture. Other questions cannot be given a specific answer but will need to be considered according to individual circumstances from the perspective of definitions and/or perceptions. Frequently, all three guidelines will be employed in seeking to determine which ecclesiastical functions are appropriate for women to perform.

B. Women and the Pastoral Office

The ordination of women to the divinely instituted ministry of Word and sacraments is a question that can be addressed on the basis of the first guideline alone. For centuries Christendom hat consistently opposed the practice as contrary to the express teachings of Scripture.

There are a number of issues which impinge on the question of women and the pastoral office which remain beyond the scope of the present report (e.g., the meaning of ordination itself [55]). However, the fundamental Scriptural principles (and corresponding theses) examined in this study demonstrate not only that the service of women in the pastoral office lacks Biblical foundation but, in point of fact, is expressly prohibited by the Scriptures.

First, the occupation of the pastoral office by women violates the headship structure rooted in God's order of creation. Peter Brunner writes:

Second, women are not to be pastors nor perform the essential and unique functions of the pastoral office, since the pastoral office has oversight from God over the congregation, "the household of God" (1 Tim. 3:15). Properly speaking, of course, the only authority or power in the church is the Word of Christ, who is Head over all things (Eph. 1:22). However, as noted previously, there are those within the church who are entrusted with the office of the public ministry and are representatives of the Head of the church.

In its 1981 report on "The Ministry" the Commission acknowledges that no specific "checklist" of functions of the office of the public ministry is provided in the Scriptures. [57] At the same time, it was pointed out that the functions of the pastoral office involve public supervision of the flock. The pastor exercises this supervision through the public proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. [58] This, in turn, suggests that there are certain specific functions which should not be carried out by the laity (who may hold auxiliary offices) but which are to be exercised by the pastor. [59] Among them are the following:

Since a "headship" over the congregation is exercised through these functions unique to the office of the public ministry, the functioning of women in this specific office is precluded. Just as the wife should not be the "head" of the house, so a woman should not be the "head" over the "household of God" (cf., 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:12). Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession states: "It is taught among us that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call" (nisi rite vocatus). Such a call is denied to women by a "command of the Lord."

Although the Scriptures teach that women may not hold the pastoral office or perform its distinctive functions, the service of women to the Lord and His church in various other offices established to facilitate the proclamation of the Word has been long-standing in the history especially of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The self- denying service, gladly given by the many faithful women who have served over the years in such offices as deaconess, Christian day school teacher, and parish worker, has been of immeasurable importance. Of these coworkers, too, it must be said that they "can never be sufficiently thanked and repaid." [60]

C. Woman Suffrage

Woman suffrage is an issue that must be decided largely on the basis of the second of the three guidelines noted above. One reason for this is that the matter of franchise is not discussed in the Scripture. A word which can be translated as "voting" (cheirotoneo-raising the hand) occurs in Acts 14:23 and 2 Cor. 8:19. However, when in the Corinthian passage the churches are described as choosing a representative to accompany Paul to Jerusalem, nothing is said about the method actually employed. In the Acts verse, the word appears to mean "appoint." No kind of franchise seems to be involved. [61]

In summary, the Scriptural passages employed for guidance on this question have been those verses of 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 Timothy 2 which deal with woman's subordination, woman's silence in the church, and woman's exercise of authority. As has been noted, Paul is not addressing himself here to anything like a contemporary "voters' assembly." He is giving instructions to Christians regarding the arrangement of and order in public worship. [62]

Further, it has been shown that the prohibition in 1 Tim. 2:11-12 of woman's exercising authority is not a concept independent of "to teach." According to this text, the woman is prohibited from the teaching in the public worship assembly. To define "authority" simply as the power to make decisions is alien to the exegesis of the passage. There is no express Biblical ground for denying women the vote on issues which facilitate the work of the priesthood of all believers in the congregation.

The definition of "suffrage" is also significant. A "democratic" society of men and women is ruled by a majority vote. However, it is not an exercise of the authority prohibited to women in the Scriptures. In fact, according to this understanding of the matter, it is actually the assembly that exercises authority as a result of suffrage, not the individual voter. Furthermore, in the church, which is ruled by love, the casting of a ballot should also have the added dimension of being an act of service.

The Commission presented a study to the Denver Convention (1969) of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on the issue of woman suffrage. It states by way of conclusion: "We find nothing in Scripture which prohibits women from exercising the franchise in voters' assemblies. Those statements which direct women to keep silent in the church, and which prohibit them to teach and to exercise authority over men, we understand to mean that women ought not to hold the pastoral office." [63] Subsequent study of the matter has provided no basis for altering these conclusions. The Commission reaffirms them. [64]

D. Additional Practical Applications

In applying the principles delineated above to concrete situations one must bear in mind that the New Testament presents no ceremonial law regulating the details of public worship. Also, in applying these principles, it is necessary to distinguish the one divinely instituted office of the public ministry of the Word and sacraments from all other offices which the church establishes in Christian freedom in response to various needs (Acts 6). Holy Scripture clearly excludes women from the office of the public ministry of Word and sacraments. For other offices we have no express "thus saith the Lord," and everything depends on the functions assigned to these offices. Differences in judgment can be expected here in decisions regarding the specific application of general principles. What follows, therefore, is to be understood not as "canon law" but as pastoral and collegial advice to be judged by the church in terms of its faithfulness to such clear Scripture as is relevant.


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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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