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Published Date: July 19, 1998

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From Scripture to Doctrine

A. Introduction

  1. We Lutherans all want to argue on the basis of God’s revealed truth in the authoritative Scripture. Yet all of us come to this debate with our own personal history and agenda. My own history includes aversion to women in the public ministry as a result of experiences, first as a teenager, then as a student in Germany. More recently, I have developed a growing understanding of the just claims of Christian women who have been disempowered and marginalized in the church and a horror for what has been perpetrated in the name of male headship. A re-examination of the texts and another (this time happy) experience of having a woman as my pastor in the United States about a decade ago led me to abandon my previously held view that the ordination of women is not the Lord’s will for his church today. I am now convinced to the contrary, although I do not like using the broad term feminist. My own personal pain is not only that close friends and relatives hold an opposing view, but that I fully understand that view as one who once held it (this is not said in any spirit of superiority).

B. Reading the evidence (hermeneutics)

  1. Lutherans read Scripture with special glasses that help us to focus on Christ. He is the heart of the Scriptures. We eagerly distinguish between (but do not separate) law and gospel. Since both law and gospel serve Christ, and since God’s will is consistently one, we also believe in the unity of revelation in the Scriptures; thus Scripture interprets Scripture. Unclear passages must be explained with the help of clear passages. The argument below will attempt to remain true to these hermeneutical principles. Instead of showing how these principles work in theory, we shall leave their application to the actual study of the texts.
  2. Though it may be expressed in new ways, the gospel is unchangeable; it must be so, for the church stands or falls on the gospel. If its foundation is not the rock of the gospel, the church cannot hope to endure for all time as Christ promised Peter it would (Matthew 16:18). The meaning and validity of the law is more difficult to define because law can be understood in various ways. Law can mean the total claim of God on human beings: ethical command (especially in the Ten Commandments), ritual requirement (used especially in Leviticus and Hebrews), sign of the covenant, and regulations for the ordering of human life. The rabbis of Jesus’ day would add the oral tradition (see Mark 7). In Romans and Galatians, Paul shows that the law is no longer valid as the basis of the new covenant, the new righteousness, and life with God. Christ is the end of the law in two senses: he is the goal to which the law points, and he brings its old function and curse to an end. Hebrews shows how Christ also supersedes the old ritual law. Where do the texts regulating the behavior of women in the New Testament churches belong? The argument against the ordination of women must demonstrate beyond any doubt that these are unchanging cultic regulations. It is just here that the problems begin, since the texts will not bear the weight of the argument that they are eternally valid regulations for the church for all time.
  3. What we should seek is the historical-contextual meaning of Scripture. It helps little to speak of the literal meaning of biblical texts. Even those against the ordination of women still have to explain what these words mean: “The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.” A literal reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 would suggest that wives should not speak, since it is shameful for them to do so, and they can carry on a discussion at home with their husbands about what has been said or what has happened in church. Our own church has never taken these words literally in the sense that women (not wives!) can say nothing in church. A sensitive historical-contextual reading of the texts in question is required, one that shows what the texts in question meant for certain Christian communities in the past before attempting to apply them today.
  4. At the heart of the dispute is not so much, or not merely, the original meaning of the texts, but how they are to be applied in the church today. We need to distinguish between original sense and present application. Both 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (women wearing a head covering) and 1 Corinthians 14:33-40 (women speaking in church assemblies) deal with much that is specific to the Corinthian situation. We do not have to transplant everything in these texts across twenty centuries, from one historical setting to a completely different historical setting today, to remain faithful to the issue that Paul is addressing–concern for good order in public worship.

C. From scripture to doctrine

  1. Whether one is for or against women holding the public office of pastor, the argument cannot be developed without making inferences from texts and combining evidence from the New Testament into a coherent argument. There is no statement in the New Testament that we must baptize children. We conclude that this is God’s will from a number of clear Scriptural truths, especially those teaching the universality of sin and grace. All are sinners. All need the grace that is available in baptism. Similarly, the argument for women being allowed to hold the public office cannot produce a biblical text that says it must be so, but argues inferentially. It seeks to show that the texts in question fit in the context of the early church’s mission; a male dominated apostolate and local ministry made perfect sense in the early church, but is not an eternally binding order. There are clear indications both in the teaching of Jesus and in the teaching of the apostle Paul that women are equal heirs of the kingdom and co-workers in the spread of the gospel. Legitimate implications for the ordering of ministry can be drawn from the gospel without turning the gospel into law.
  2. It has been said that only the argument for the ordination of women has to prove its case. Such an assertion works with an assumption: that the New Testament clearly speaks against women occupying the public ministry then and in all ages. That assumption needs to be challenged. The argument in this presentation follows the basic points raised by the contra argument in order to show how the evidence can be read differently.
  3. At issue is not only how we arrive at doctrine, but also whether there can be new doctrine. Here, some careful distinctions are necessary. The Lutheran Confessions have a clear teaching in the Augsburg Confession, Article V, on the divine institution of the public office, on what it administers (word and sacraments), and on the power at work through it (the Spirit). Whether women may be ordained is a question about the ordering of ministry that is not directly addressed in the Lutheran Confessions. To conclude that we may ordain women today does not mean that the church has been guilty of heresy in not doing so in the past. That we have drawn wrong conclusions and not drawn correct ones from Scripture does not mean that we repent of the past, but embrace new insights as gifts of the Spirit who leads people to understand the Truth (see John 16:13).
  4. I would also assert that the failure to ordain women today cannot be called heresy. Clearly, there must be ministry, but there is no command that women must be ordained. The Lutheran Church in Australia has had a word and sacrament ministry–with men only. To continue this practice would not be false teaching, but to perpetuate a regrettably narrow application of the church’s teaching on the ministry. It would continue to see only half the members of Christ’s Body as potential ministers to all members of that Body.
  5. The doctrine of the church, as contained in its public teaching, confession and practice, isnot static in the sense that it is ever finished. Formulating doctrine did not finish with the early church, nor did it finish with the Reformation. New circumstances and new questions require new answers. New insights can lead to new conclusions. This is not to say that past confessions become relative–in fact, they become even more important as a safe anchor for the ship of faith while plumbing new depths around the ship! Nor does it mean that doctrine becomes a shifting sand dune, blown with the wind of current theological opinion. It means a growth in faith and understanding that leads to greater praise of and bolder witness to the Triune God who is the author of all truth.

D. Tradition and ecumenism

  1. It is an indisputable fact that for over eighteen centuries catholic, orthodox Christianity has not permitted women to hold the public office. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have affirmed that tradition in recent times. That is an impressive tradition, one in which the Lutheran Churches also stood united until the Swedish Church first broke ranks and began ordaining women early in this century. But Lutherans, of all people, should know that tradition and past practice alone do not determine what our practice today should be. The Church of the Reformation knows that the church must always be reformed.
  2. Similarly, the practice of other churches is not determinative. The so-called ecumenical argument is capable of differing applications. Does it mean conforming to the practice of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, even though our doctrine of the ministry is different? The recent appeal of the pope for all Catholic theologians to reject the ordination of women to the priesthood is further evidence for the strength of the contrary view within the Church of Rome. Does it mean conformity with other Lutherans? If so, with the majority who ordain women, or with those who do not? In short, both tradition and ecumenical relations are important factors as the LCA makes its own decision, but they are not determining factors.

E. Interpreting the key texts

1 Corinthians 14:33-40

  1. This text must be read with 1 Cor 11:2-16. Though the latter is one of the most difficult texts in Paul’s letters, some things are clear. Paul allows women to speak in public worship as long as they are clearly marked by the veil or some head covering. He develops his argument on a number of bases, not all of equal weight. He argues from creation, from social convention on what brings shame and disgrace or honor and glory, from nature, and from recognized church practice. Clearly, the practice he is regulating belongs to public worship, not to what goes on in the privacy of the Corinthian’s homes. Paul’s point that women must be seen to be women, his reference to the angels as guardians of order in worship (that seems to be the meaning of the difficult verse 10) and the following teaching on the Lord’s Supper all make this clear.
  2. This passage stands, at the very least, in tension with Paul’s ruling in 14:34 that the women/wives keep silent in the churches, meaning church assemblies. To avoid a contradiction, some argue that Paul is referring to inspired prophetesses in chapter 11, but to regular preaching in chapter 14, but Paul makes no such distinction. He insists against the charismatic Corinthians that the “spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (14:32). It is not a question of women being allowed to pray and prophesy because, according to chapter 11, they have to speak by the Spirit.
  3. There is even some tension between Paul’s argument on the clear differentiation between men and women as created beings in 11:3-9 and their mutual interdependence “in the Lord” in 11:11,12. Paul has two starting points for his view of the role of men and women in the church. The abuses at Corinth demanded that he stress the created difference between men and women. This would explain why the baptismal formula of Galatians 3:28 appears in 1 Cor. 12:13 without the phrase neither male nor female!
  4. There is a textual question in 1 Cor. 14:33-40. One tradition, chiefly western, places vv34, 35 after v40. In this reading, Paul’s appeal to the “command of the Lord” (v37) would come before the command that women be silent. Even the appeal has variant readings, with some manuscripts having “commands of the Lord,” others omitting the word “command” altogether. Now even if none of the variants are original, the changes are, as often, something like a first commentary on the text. In other words, early copyists also had problems understanding Paul’s words.
  5. The context of 14:34,35 is disorder in public worship–people seeking to outdo each other in speaking tongues and prophesying. We have already seen that the silence of women cannot be an absolute silence. Nor must speak mean preach. The following reference to asking questions of husbands at home indicates that Paul has in mind the kind of discussions in the church that were also part of synagogue worship with which some of the Corinthian Christians would have been familiar (see Acts 18:1-4,8 for the Jewish beginnings of the Corinthian church). What Paul forbids is argumentative disputation by women, their disruptive insistence on being heard. The ultimate concern is for good order and not confusion in worship. See how vv33a and 40 frame the discussion in the accepted verse order.
  6. Paul speaks with apostolic authority here in 1 Cor. 14:3-40, yet his appeals (as in 11:2-16) are not all on the same level. He cites common practice (v33b), the “law” (though what law is referred to in v24 is unclear), what is “shameful” (v35) and the command of the Lord (v38). He even seems to threaten exclusion from the faith community (v38). None of these appeals help us to determine with absolute certainty whether Paul is laying down rules for all time. We should note that his regulations include what he has said about speaking in tongues and taking turns to prophesy. A literal application of Paul’s words would require us to allow speaking in tongues and prophesying by members of the congregation, with each taking their turn. But this we do not do. We have been selective in our application of the text.

1 Timothy 2:11-15

  1. The context is again a situation of disorder. Teachers have entered the congregations promoting false doctrine (1:3), making members angry and argumentative (2:8; 6:4). This false teaching seems to have caught on especially among the women (1 Tim 4:7; 2 Tim 3:6,7) and led to idle gossip (5:13), pleasure seeking (5:6,11) and the love of expensive clothes and jewelry (2:9).
  2. Some phrases or words in the text are not perfectly clear in meaning. The verb translated “to have authority” appears only here in the New Testament. Outside the New Testament it can refer to aggressive, assertive or even violent behavior towards others, so some commentators insist that Paul is not allowing women to teach in a certain way.
  3. As in 1 Cor. 11 and 14, we need to note carefully the way Paul argues. There is obviously an agenda behind the reminder that Adam was created first, but that Eve, not Adam, was the first to be deceived. Does this contain a swipe at the cult of Artemis in Ephesus, a cult that taught that Artemis was created before her male consort? Does the text seek to substantiate a common view that women are less reliable than men? Another scenario is more likely. Like the Corinthian church, that at Ephesus had its origins in Judaism. While Paul also has general community standards in mind (see how the appeal to modesty and sensible behavior frames the passage in 1 Tim 2:9,15) he is speaking to young Christians who come out of a Jewish background. The biblical evidence he uses in vv13,14 would be familiar and convincing to them.
  4. The rejection of an argumentative, assertive speaking of women in worship has some things in common with 1 Cor. 14:33- 35. Women/wives are to remain silent, they are to show submission (the two texts do not expressly say that the women are to be subordinate to the men), they are to be learners/questioners. Respectful silence, letting men take the lead, declining to argue with the male leaders of the congregation–all this is not only understandable for a young church, but it is also necessary so that offensive behavior will not jeopardize the mission to bring God’s saving will to all people, not only “men,” 1 Tim. 2:4).
  5. What is modest, sensible, and seemly with reference to clothing (v9) refers, like the length of one’s hair, to social norms and standards in general, but specifically within Judaism. A woman leading in the worship of the early church was just as impossible as was a woman leading in synagogue worship. Our world is decidedly different. Of course, we are not to follow community standards blindly, but we should be sensitive to the perception of “outsiders” that the world is often ahead of the church in honoring and treating women as equals.

Galatians 3:26-28

  1. The final phrase in this baptismal formula, “there is no longer male and female,” is clearly areference to Genesis 1:27, the original creation. Here, Paul points to the results of the new creation in Christ by virtue of baptism. He does not deny that there are still Greeks, Jews, slaves, free people, men, and women. Rather, the new creation means that they have a new status of unity and equality before God.
  2. Is this merely a faith statement? Some insist that it describes only what we are before God, not in our social relationships. Yet this radical formula obviously did have social implications. Onesimus may not have ceased to be a slave, yet Paul expected Philemon to treat him very differently now that he had become a Christian (Philem 15-17). Early Christians could not change whether they were of Jewish or Gentile background, but Paul expected each side to embrace and treat the other side as equal in honor and standing (Rom 15:7-9; Eph 2:11-22). Husbands and wives remained men and women, but their relationships were now determined by the love, respect and mutual submission that they shared as partners in the gospel (see Eph 5:21-33).
  3. The text does not say women must be ordained! That would be to turn gospel into law. What is legitimate is to draw practical conclusions from the gospel. The church is not a preserve for male supremacy in the family of God. The mutual interdependence of wives and husbands in marriage (1 Cor. 7:4) should be matched by the complementary service of men and women in the Body of Christ, using the gifts that the Spirit has freely given without gender differentiation.
  4. Why did the early church not immediately draw all possible practical conclusions from Gal. 3:28? One obvious answer was that expectation of Christ’s immanent return did not allow for great changes. But there is another more important reason. Though the gospel was radical, the Christian movement was very conservative in its practice when moving out into the world from the Jewish mother-soil. The prime concern was always mission. A few examples may help to show how mission expediency, rather than gospel principle, determined mission practice, without the principle being given up.

    1. Paul could still circumcise Timothy, though he maintained that circumcision counted for nothing (Acts 16:3; Gal. 6:15; 1 Cor. 7:19);
    2. The Gentiles were to be free from the Jewish law, yet the Apostolic Council decreed that aspects of it be observed also by Gentile converts (Acts 15:7-11, 19-21). This edict, issued with the Spirit’s authority (15:28) was not repealed; it simply lapsed;
    3. Paul intimates that the gospel and the one needing to hear the gospel were his prime concern; he would be a Jew to Jews and a Gentile to Gentiles (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Far from promoting social revolution, his preference was that people stay where they were when they received the gospel (1 Cor. 7:17-24).

F. Headship and subordination

  1. In Greek the word head is not synonymous with leader or prime authority. It denotes the source from which something originates. Thus, God is the head of Christ and man is the head of woman since Eve came from Adam (see 1 Cor. 11:3-12). Christ is head of the church as its self-giving Savior. The husband is head of the wife also in the sense that he is responsible for her welfare. That Christ as head of the church is also its Lord does not mean that the husband, by analogy, can lord it over the wife.
  2. God as Creator has ordered his creation. So we speak of government and the family as orders of creation. The order is the form or structure within which we live. How we live in that structure as Christians is determined not merely by the structure, but by our life in Christ. Not law, but love is to guide husband and wife in marriage (Eph 5:25-33).
  3. Subordination is something enjoined of all Christians. They are to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21 ). The form of the verb suggests a voluntary submission under others, not by compulsion and not according to a fixed scheme. It does not mean that the wife must place herself under the husband. Then slavery would have to be called a created order, but that is certainly not what 1 Peter 2:18 implies when it calls on servants to be submissive to masters. Submissive behavior is a way of showing special honor and respect to the other partner, but it does not mean surrendering all authority and leadership to the other partner.

G. The maleness of Jesus and the apostles: ministry in the early church

  1. That Jesus and the apostles were male is a fact, not a prescription. Women in Judaism could not function as priests in the temple or as leaders of the synagogue. They could not study Torah with a rabbi nor could they be full members of the community at Qumran. It is easy to understand why Jesus, as the promised messianic king, had to be male; it was equally necessary that the apostles be male.
  2. Jesus’ apostles (in the narrower, technical sense) were those who witnessed the risen Lord and were commissioned by him for witness to the world. Since it involved eyewitness testimony and personal authorization by Jesus, the apostolic office was both foundational and temporary. The apostles died out; no new apostles could be appointed. This means that public ministry of word and sacrament is not a replication of the apostolic office, though it does continue “the spiritual functions of the apostolate” (TA VI 6; DSTO A12). Pastors can witness to Christ only through the apostolic word. They represent Christ who is Lord of all, not the (male) apostles.
  3. Some early authorities read Junia (feminine name) instead of Junias (male name) in Romans 16:7. If this reading is original, it still does not decide whether there was a woman apostle among Jesus’ earliest witnesses. That Junia/s is a person “of note among the apostles” could mean that he/she is well known by the apostles. Even the word “apostles” could be used in the more general sense of a sent representative (see 2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25).
  4. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus honored women in ways quite atypical of a Jewish teacher; he treated women as disciples. Women ministered to Jesus (e.g. Luke 8:2). Similarly, women were valued co-workers of the apostles. Priscilla even took the lead from her husband, Aquila, in teaching Apollos (Acts 18:26). She, together with Euodia and Syntyche, were fellow-workers with Paul in his mission (Rom 16:3; Phil 4:2,3). Three women helped to establish the church at Rome (Rom 16:6,12).

H. The doctrine of ministry

  1. The Lutheran Confessions make clear that the public office is a creation of the Lord for the proclamation of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. Though pastors must have an inner call, it is the outer call of the church that makes them pastors. As much as we seek people with gifts, the gifts do not constitute the pastor’s authority. This is true also of the natural gift of gender. Pastors represent Christ in their humanness, not in their maleness.
  2. Pastors speak and act as Christ’s personal representatives (see Luke 10:16). In this, they image Christ. They do not represent Jesus’ maleness, but his saving person in word and sacrament. Christ became human so that male and female could be recreated in the image of God. Christ is the perfect image of God (2 Cor. 4:4) and those who believe in him, whether male or female, are renewed into Christ’s image (2 Cor. 3:18). Women who bear the new Christ-image can represent Christ as much as can men. To deny this is to limit the meaning of the incarnation and its blessed results for all people, male and female–the renewal of the image of God in Christ.

© Copyright – Dr Vic Pfitzner Adaptation of a presentation at St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Nunawading, Sunday 19 July, 1998