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Woman Suffrage in the Church

Parts III and IV

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

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The first point to be made in this section is that the exegetical study presented to the St. Paul convention. as described above (I, B. 3), offers a rather detailed analysis of the passages generally cited in the course of our synodical life as prohibiting woman suffrage. That interpretation is given on pages 555 to 564 of the Proceedings of 1956. The following four passages are there dealt with: Galatians 3:26-29; 1 Cor. 11:2-16; 1 Cor. 14: 33b-38; and 1 Tim. 2: 11-15. The committee itself acknowledges its indebtedness to a book by Fritz Zerbst entitled, Das Amt der Frau in der Kirche (Vienna, 1950), translated by Albert C. Merkens under the title: The Office of Woman in the Church: A Study in Practical Theology (St. Louis, 1955).

It may be useful to review the substance of the committee's exegetical work as presented to the St. Paul convention. It begins with a statement on the distinction between the orders of creation and of redemption. On the basis of the difference between these two kinds of structure, the committee correctly concludes that Galatians 3: 26-29, 1 Cor. 12: 13, and Col. 3:11 are passages which describe human relationships and personal identities in terms of redemption. In the redemptive order, social as well as racial and sexual distinctions are transcended by that unity which Christ has given to His church. In this context the statement of 1956 applies Gal. 3: 26-29 to the order of redemption and shows that it is improper to use this Pauline text as a basis for supporting the cause of woman suffrage.

Three other passages remain. They are 1 Cor. 11: 216; 1 Cor. 14: 33b-38; and 1 Tim. 1: 11-15. These are then discussed in some detail.

The first of these texts (1 Cor. 11: 2-16) reads as follows:

Here the apostle insists that "a woman disgraces her head if she prays or prophesies bareheaded" (1 Cor. 11:5). Paul's point, as the committee indicates, is that a service of worship, related as it is to the order of redemption, ought not to serve as the occasion for vitiating the proper relationship of women to men in the order of creation. As C. K. Barrett has put it in his commentary on First Corinthians (New York, 1968), p. 251: "The oneness of male and female in Christ (Gal. 3:28) does not obliterate the distinction given in creation."

It is clear from the passage itself, in its context, that in the apostle's day the head covering symbolized woman's subordination to man in the order of creation. By "prophesying" bareheaded such women, endowed with this special gift, seemed to imply that they were no longer bound to this functional relationship. In so doing they failed to take full cognizance of the fact that God their Redeemer was also their Creator, who had chosen to structure existence along certain lines.

Life in the church is not designed to destroy such institutions as government and marriage, for example. Both of these belong to what we call the orders of creation or preservation. They are so constituted as to require the exercise of authority on the part of some persons or person invested with the right to do so. In government, people who hold political office are expected to function with authority. In matrimony it is the husband that has the responsibility of decision as a way of preserving an orderly way of life.

We have put the matter in this way in order to suggest that the apostle did not intend to say that women are in some sense inferior to men in terms of nature or being. The quality of "subordination" flows from an act of faith in God as the Creator of certain basic relationships which keep life and society from degenerating into anarchy. The apostle Paul was determined that, by some misapprehension and misapplication of their oneness in Christ, his fellow Christians in Corinth might destroy these very structures.

In 1 Cor.11: 2-16, the passage presently under discussion, Paul was not addressing himself to anything like a voters' meeting. The closest he seems to come to that matter is in a previous section, where he deals with a case of incest in the Christian community. In that connection (1 Cor. 5: 4b-5) he says:

Paul does not suggest any specific procedure to be followed in the handling of this problem. He writes in such a way as to indicate that the question of how this was to be done was not an issue. We may assume therefore that the congregation in Corinth followed a method known to its members, probably from their past experience and contacts in the synagogue. There the duly elected or appointed officials usually took care of such disciplinary problems. If that is how the congregation proceeded to act, then this evil person was removed from the congregation by action of its male leadership. Women enjoyed neither the right nor the responsibility of sharing in the decision-making processes of the synagogue organization. This practice of excluding them was carried over into the early church; and so women would have found no occasion, under these circumstances, to flaunt their freedom and upset the hierarchy of functions established at creation and especially right after the Fall (Gen. 3:16).

The next major passage to receive consideration in the report of 1956 is 1 Cor. 14:33b-38. It reads as follows:

This passage certainly calls for silence on the part of women in the church. The context clearly indicates that the word "church" (ekklesia) is to be understood here in the sense of a congregation at worship.

A distinction is made between the prophetesses of chapter 11 and women who are present at worship as ordinary members of a congregation (cf. Jean Hering, The First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. London, 1962, p. 154). While the former may speak, if properly attired, the latter are to remain silent. The context indicates that Paul was addressing his remarks to married women of the congregation. To suggest, on this basis, that unmarried women could speak in a public service would seem to be an unwarranted conclusion.

It has been suggested that the apostle used the verb lalein here to signify idle chatter. While the word at times had this meaning in classical Greek, it is not so used in the New Testament. In the present instance it refers to speaking in an assembly of Christians gathered for worship. The context suggests that, during such worship, questions arose with respect to the revelations given by the Spirit and proclaimed in the congregation. Paul here insists that it is a disgrace for a woman to do this kind of talking, since it would be disruptive. He commands silence in this instance for the same reason that he orders the first man who receives a revelation to be quiet when a second person has such an experience and wants to talk (v. 30).

The apostle's chief interest lay in avoiding disorder in the public worship service. He insisted that an order of service exhibit the will of that God who created order out of chaos and is eager to have His children pursue the art of peace (v. 33) and not engage in disruption.

Since verse 36 makes it clear that the apostle is here dealing with a phenomenon as it had manifested itself in Corinth, we may assume that he had been informed by visitors from that city (1 Cor. 1:11) of certain excesses which tended to create disorders in that congregation. He argues from a principle set forth "in the Law," as he puts it (v. 34). He must certainly have had Genesis 3:16 in mind, where woman is described, after the Fall, as being subject to her husband.

In other words the apostle has come back to the point that the subordination of a wife to her husband is part of the order of preservation. This basic arrangement was being disturbed by women wanting to talk in a public service, presumably as part of a discussion devoted to further inquiry as to what various revelations in the service meant. Wives were asked to inquire of their husbands at home if they were anxious to learn more of what they had heard in the service.

The apostle was interested in more than offering sound advice. He was determined to keep his Corinthian Christians from causing wholesale disorder and disruption by a practice which could only have been misunderstood and in fact represented a false application of Christian freedom. He had spelled out this basic position previously when he wrote: "Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called" (7:20). That is to say, it was the apostle's conviction that the church in her life ought not to undermine but to sanctify the orders of creation.

Paul in fact insists on this point. He calls it a command of the Lord (v. 37) and describes anyone who does not recognize this fact as being the kind of person who is not acknowledged by God.

We must be clear on a number of points in this connection. First, we must note that the apostle is describing a public service and not a voters' assembly. Whatever is said here, therefore, can be applied only indirectly, if at all, to the question of woman suffrage. Second, Paul addresses himself to a specific situation. In the third instance he is committed to upholding the institution of matrimony as belonging to the orders of creation, where renewal is not properly accomplished by disorder and disruption but by observing and sanctifying the practice of authority on the part of the husband and subordination on the part of his spouse.

The Christians at Corinth, as so many others have done since, acted as though they believed that the gifts of the Spirit must of necessity disturb the existing order and that, the greater the disturbance, the greater the proof that He is at work. Paul counters this notion by maintaining that God is not the God of confusion and commotion but of order. His action is often quiet and peaceful; and worship ought to correspond to such a manifestation of God's Spirit.

The teaching given in 1 Tim. 2:11-15, the third major passage bearing on our subject matter, is very similar to what we have gleaned from 1 Cor. 14. It reads as follows:

A brief note on translation may be helpful at this juncture. The Revised Standard Version renders the Greek word authentein, in verse 12, as "having authority." It would seem that such a translation does not fully reflect the significance of this particular term. The report submitted to the St. Paul convention of our Synod points out that this term really means "usurping authority, domineering, lording it over" someone. It is here understood in that sense. Verse 12, then prohibits women from engaging in activities that result in usurping authority over men. That is to say, they are not to undertake such things as give evidence of their exercising authority over men in their own right, as persons created to be subject to men.

Some of the Hellenistic mystery ceremonies in the apostolic age encouraged women to engage in such actions of domineering by inviting them to play a leading and directing essential part in their ecstatic and often immoral rites. The sobriety and silence of Jewish women in their synagogues stood out in stark contrast. The apostolic author is at pains to exhort Christian women to reject the vaunted liberty of pagan rites and follow the descendants of Sarah in their imitation of a great heroine of the faith (cf. 1 Peter 3: 6).

The burden of the text falls on the thought of a woman destroying the created order by getting involved in the kind of activity which would suggest a desire to lord it over men. In those days teaching was considered to be one such activity, as witness the fact that in the synagogue a teacher was called "rabbi," "my great one."

As a matter of fact, in the Judaism of the first century even learning, going to school, was a right denied to women. To have insisted on the kind of opportunity for learning which was available to Jewish boys and men would have been considered an act of impudence. Woman's lot was to pursue her task in quietness and subordination. This is the principle set forth in verses 11 and 12. It is supported by an argument from the sacred account of man's creation.

The verse dealing with Adam and Eve does not intend to discourse on some presumed difference in the nature of male and female. Nor does it propose to exculpate Adam on the order of the apocryphal passage in Ecclesasticus (25: 24): "From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die." The intent of the words to Timothy is to insist that God's order of creation was not invalidated by mankind's fall into sin.

In the statement that follows, the sacred author exalts wedlock and motherhood as being the proper role of women. He does so perhaps with a view to countering some celibate tendencies developing in certain parts of the church. While Ignatius, Justin, Tertullian, and Irenaeus of old held that the childbearing referred to here was an allusion to the birth of Jesus Christ as the Savior also of women, the whole context argues against such an interpretation. "Salvation" is to be understood here in the sense in which the term occurs in some other New Testament passages, namely, as being healed or finding wholeness (e. g., Matt. 9: 21; Mark 5: 23; 6: 56). Accordingly, bearing children is here conjoined to faith love, and sanctification as a way to fullness in life.

We must now ask whether the texts that have been discussed deal directly with the issue of voting at all. The President's committee of 1956 already pointed out that none of them dealt expressly with voters' assemblies as they are structured today. In other words, none of the passages under study gives a clear answer to the questions of woman suffrage and of occupying church offices. Any application of them must be made on the basis of inference.



Of special interest at the moment is the passage from First Timothy with its reference to silence in the church on the part of women lest they lord it over men. This text got into the discussion on woman suffrage on the principle that there is a connection between the franchise and church office as ways of exercising authority. This was the view of the New York convention in 1967 when it passed its resolution declaring "women to be eligible to serve as advisory members on synodical boards, commissions, and committees within the framework of Scriptural principles."

We must observe in this connection that the New Testament is not very explicit on the issues of voting. While the word that can be translated as "voting" (cheirotoneostretching the hand) occurs twice (Acts 14:27; 2 Cor. 8: 19), it is not clear whether the term is actually to be so understood. The Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon suggests that 2 Cor. 8:19 describes the churches as choosing a representative to accompany Paul on his journey to take the collection to Jerusalem. However, nothing is said here as to the method by which such a choice was made. Furthermore, the reference is less to an office in the church than to a mission of a number of congregations.

In the other passage, Acts 14: 23, the word appears to mean "appoint." There it is said that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders congregation by congregation. In other words, no kind of franchise seems to have been involved in filling these offices.

Some kind of group action was involved in the appointment of the Seven in Acts 6:3. But the word for voting does not occur there. The disciples are directed to select some men; but the word used (episkeptesthai) signalizes "examining" or "inspecting" rather than "voting." Under any circumstances, nothing is said about the way in which this was to be done.

When the church in Antioch was instructed to set aside Saul and Barnabas for the task of missionary expansion, nothing is said about voting. The members of the church are there described as being at worship, fasting and praying (Acts 13: 2-3) when these two men were designated by an action of the Holy Spirit and ordained for their work by the congregation.

All of these considerations suggest that the matter of the franchise as it relates to the participation of women is not sharply delineated in the New Testament. Since no doctrinal point can be established except on the basis of a clear passage, the church cannot, on the basis of the texts discussed, adopt any binding regulations on these matters.

With these various points in mind, we need to return to the issue of voting in a meeting of the congregation. Does such an exercise of the franchise constitute an act of domination over someone else, especially over one's husband?

Suffrage is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as "a vote given by a member of a body, state, or society, in assent to a proposition or in favor of the election of a person; in extended sense, a vote for or against any controverted question or nomination"; also, "the right or privilege of voting as a member of a body, state, etc."

Other dictionaries of the English language define suffrage in essentially the same manner. Common experience in a democratic society gives abundant evidence that this definition is correct.

From the definition of suffrage it is evident that public teaching in the church is not an essential or necessary part of suffrage in the church. The adult male members of the church who now enjoy the right of suffrage and of holding office are not thereby empowered to fill the pastoral office, which includes the responsibility of teaching publicly in the church. This right and privilege is for those who are called for this task by the church itself. Cp. Augsburg Confession, Art. XIV.

It is also evident from the definition of the franchise that it does not give to those who have the right of suffrage the power to lord it over others. On the contrary, the right of suffrage is given in order to prevent individuals or small groups from usurping authority over others.

In the matter of suffrage, then, we must conclude that there is nothing in Scripture to prohibit women from exercising the franchise in the voters' meetings of the congregations to which they belong. In such assemblies they are in no stronger position than anyone else to turn the franchise into an instrument of usurpation. The parliamentary procedures normally followed in such meetings are designed for the express purpose of preventing the concentration of power with a view to domination. The temptation to abuse power, of course, is always present. The Scripture passages we have examined contain the extra caution to women that they are not to use their positions of responsibility and service as instruments for lording it over men.

When it comes to the matter of holding office in church, the Detroit convention already resolved that women are not to hold any such offices in the congregation as directly involve women in "the public administration of the Office of the Keys,"(Proceedings, p. 103; Res. 2-36). This stricture would apply specifically to the pastoral office and membership on the board of elders. To this point we would need to add the observation that some offices in the congregation implicitly expect the exercise of authority over others, including men. Holding such offices might indeed be in violation of what has been called the order of creation or of preservation.

There are other kinds of offices, however; and in that sphere many of the principles are applicable which were set forth in the discussion of the franchise. Whether an individual is either appointed or elected to such an office in Synod or in the congregation is incidental. The method by which one is given office is not of the essence. The basic question remains: Does such office-holding, of itself, constitute an act of lording it over others?

Here we must keep in mind that both Synod and the individual congregations of Synod are to be thought of as instruments of service rather than as means of exercising power over others. While, of course, a measure of authority is exercised by anyone who holds an office, such power is always circumscribed by the prior considerations of both the service to be rendered and the act of delegation inherent in either appointment or election. After all, the church is the people of God, among whom the structures of organization exist as means of ministering to others (cf. Eph. 4:12; Luke 22: 25). In this understanding of the church, the exercise of the franchise offers the privilege of service to the body of Christ rather than the prerogative of power over a political entity.

All of this is meant to say that neither the exercise of the franchise nor the act of holding office in and of themselves provide the occasion to engage in what the apostle prohibits. The franchise is part of a method of delegating authority, not usurping it. Much the same may be said of holding those offices in the church which do not directly relate to the exercise of authority over others. Offices exist for the purpose of serving the people of God with that particular measure of authority which is entrusted to each officeholder by the exercise of the franchise on the part of church members.


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

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