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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.

    1. In response to questions regarding the service of women in the church, we must first ask whether God's Word expressly permits it or whether it expressly prohibits the activity. In the foregoing study of the Pauline passages it is clear that some activities are permitted while others carry restrictions.

    2. We must also ask whether an activity is consonant with the purpose of Scripture but prevented by a technicality of human definition. To what extent have cultural definitions-of "authority" or "subjection," for instance-influenced our understanding of the Biblical passages? Or conversely, does an activity which is permitted on the basis of a technicality of definition effectively undermine nevertheless, a Biblical norm?

    3. The third guideline has to do with perceptions and the taking of offense (cf. 1 Corinthians 8; Romans 14; FC SD X). Is an action likely to be misunderstood or perceived in a way that it becomes a stumbling block for others? And, a perennial question in Lutheran theology at least, is this a situation in which an indifferent matter ceases to be a matter of indifference?

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:

    ... the combination of pastoral office and being woman objectively and fundamentally destroys the kephale- structure of the relationship between man and woman and therefore also rejects the "ordering into" and "subordination to" (hypotage) which is demanded by God's will. That which contradicts the spiritual and creaturely order with which God has invested being cannot be the good that God wills! God does not contradict Himself in creation and redemption. The apostolic command to silence, as we find it in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, cannot be explained away as the result of the peculiar theological speculation of its author; who was bound by the cultural history and special circumstances of his day. These instructions are based much more on certain hidden, but yet extraordinarily incisive, fundamental laws and commands that God Himself established.... [56]

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:

    1) preaching in the services of the congregation
    2) leading the formal public services of worthily
    3) the public administration of the sacraments
    4) the public administration of the office of the keys

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.

    1. Should a woman participate in public worship in the capacity of reading the Scriptures for the day or in assisting with the formal liturgical service?

    All Christians have access to the Scriptures. They do not require the church as an institution or another person to read and interpret them on their behalf. The reading of the Scriptures belongs to the priesthood of all believers, men and women.

    Moreover, there is no ceremonial law in the New Testament regarding the reading of Scripture in the context of public worship. Nor is there explicit apostolic prohibition of such reading by women. Nevertheless, it is the opinion of the CTCR that the reading of the Scriptures is most properly the function of the pastoral office and should therefore not ordinarily be delegated to a lay person, woman or man. Pastors and congregations should therefore exercise great care in making decisions permitting the lay reading of the Scriptures or any other activity in the formal liturgical services which might be perceived as an assumption of the pastoral role or a disregard for the Scriptural principles concerning the service of women in the church (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:3-16; 14:33b-35). The third guideline listed above concerning the perceptions which certain actions may convey is also relevant and Should be taken into account in answering this question.

    2. May a woman address a congregation on a particular subject in which she possesses an expertise (lectures or presentations on social and ethical issues, etc.) and therefore "teach" in the church?

    The answer to this question depends, in the first place, on the interpretation of Paul's statement in 1 Tim. 2:12 that woman may not teach. The passage does not expressly prohibit the instance envisioned in the above question. The sharing and teaching this question entails does not place the woman in the office of the pastor. She is not seeking to enforce her teaching with discipline and is not usurping the authority of any man. Paul did not forbid all teaching by women. In terms of perceptions or the giving of offense, such a presentation by a guest speaker on any topic should be arranged in such a way that the impression is not given that it replaces the sermon. There are women in the church who, through their education and experience, have much to contribute on a wide range of significant concerns. They should be encouraged to serve in such capacities as gifts of God to His church.

    3. Does the above response also apply to the regular adult Bible class of a congregation which includes men?

    Certainly there is a legitimate distinction between a special presentation to the congregation and the continued instruction offered by the adult Bible class instructor. However, there is also a distinction between "overseeing" the instruction carried on in an adult Bible class and the actual physical teaching of the class (just as there is a more general distinction between "office" and "function"). It is the responsibility of the called pastor to "oversee" the adult Bible class (as well as all of the formal educational programs of the congregation). He may, from time to time, have members of the church teach the class and such teachers could indeed be women with the gifts for such a service. Their participation would be within the bounds of the priesthood of all believers. At the same time, teaching an adult class may involve possible, but very real, confusion regarding the office of pastor for some in a congregation. No doubt the pastor would seek to allay any such misunderstanding by appropriate preparation of the class for the service of laypeople in this capacity.

    4. May women hold office in a congregation, serve on committees of the congregation, chair committees of the congregation?

    Women may hold any office and serve on any committee of the congregation which enhances the work of the priesthood of all believers. Women also have the privilege to chair congregational committees, since a "chair" does not "have authority over men" any more than the committee per se would have such authority in the New Testament sense. The only stricture would have to do with anyone whose official functions would involve public accountability for the function of the pastoral office (e.g., elders, and possibly the chairman of the congregation). The tasks of the elders in a congregation are often directly associated with the pastoral office and the public administration of the office of the keys. As stated in the introductory paragraph to this section, everything depends on the nature of functions assigned to various offices established by the church. The same general position outlined above applies to various district or synodical committees and commissions. Affairs of the church have never been assigned only to those holding the office of the public ministry. Women offer valuable contributions to the work of such committees, boards, and commissions.

    5. What about the service of women in other worship contexts such as devotions conducted in the chapels of synodical colleges and other institutions?

    Here, especially in the tradition of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, much has to do with definition and perception. While it is clear from the Scriptures that women should not preach or lead the formal public worship services of the church, many of the church's educational institutions conduct what has been referred to as extended "family devotions" and have asked women to serve in worship leadership capacities. These "devotions" should be differentiated from the formal (and to a great extent, public) worship services. Institutions that hold public worship services under the responsibility of one who is called to be chaplain, campus pastor, dean of the chapel, etc., would seem to be out of the realm of "family devotions" in any acceptable meaning of the phrase. In such contexts, women should not preach or lead the services of worship. In those other worship opportunities which may be appropriately understood as "devotions," the chaplain or other "spiritual head" of the community should make responsible decisions regarding the service cf. women, keeping in mind all of the guidelines presented in this report. It is impossible to anticipate all of the exigencies of such situations in a general study such as that offered in this document.

    6. May women serve as assistants in the distribution of the Lord's Supper?

    While some might argue that assisting the presiding minister in the distribution of the elements is not necessarily a distinctive function of the pastoral office, the commission strongly recommends that, to avoid confusion regarding the office of the public ministry and to avoid giving offense to the church, such assistance be limited to men. [65]

    7. May young women serve in such capacities as acolytes or ushers in public worship services?

    Since such service does not involve the exercise of distinctive functions of the pastoral office, there should be no objection to young women serving in such capacities. Pastoral wisdom requires that those who make decisions in this area be sensitive to such considerations as the effects of change in congregational worship practices, the need for appropriate instruction regarding the principles of Christian worship, and the importance of respectful and modest behavior and attire for those young men and women who perform such acts of service.


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

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