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Ordination of women in the LCA - Yes or No?

Authority and Leadership in the early Western church
A brief exercise in historical thinking
Roger W. Whittall, Adelaide

Preamble and Presuppositions
This paper does not represent an expert or even a detailed investigation into the sources of Western Christianity on the subject of the non-ordination of women. Rather, it is an attempt to test the historical reasons for the church’s consistent judgement on this topic, written from the standpoint of a critical acceptance of that judgement. It reaches no particularly new or significant conclusions; it is content to ask a handful of awkward questions, which are offered in the hope that others find them worthy of consideration.

 The basic historical ‘fact’ is quite clear: there were no women bishops or priests in western catholic Christianity, no formal, public, female leadership, despite the undoubtedly significant role that women did play in the life of the early church. This being so, we then need to ask ‘why?, and to seek out the determinative factors without prejudging issues and with an awareness of our own tendency to select events and accounts to fit our own preconceived ideas. Only then can we properly gain some benefit from this kind of study for our own struggle with similar questions in our own day.

 History is significant — in and through the unfolding of human affairs, God is active. The broader significance of the incarnation of our Lord; a properly understood Two-Kingdoms doctrine; and also the eschatological considerations, all of these are factors which suggest an approach to human history (including the history of the church) which in the end takes account of the presence and purpose of the Triune God. We are not dealing with random or impersonal events, processes, and forces. The cliche applies, also to this Christian view of history: unless we begin to enter into and understand the mind of the past, and how we have come to be the people we are, our present remains confused, our future uncertain.

Therefore, for strong theological reasons we cannot simply ignore or blindly accept the decisions, developments and events of the past. They speak to us of God’s involvement; of guidance and, finally, of judgement. This is consistent, and focussed, but it is never static. There is movement towards the goal, and consequences flowing out from such movement. History — also Christian history — unfolds and develops. Luther’s question, ‘to whom is this word addressed?’ clearly has relevance also to words and events beyond the formal, biblical record of sacred history. Think about the Reformation and the changes which took place then, and which we embrace and build on today, also in the area of the government of the church. In so many ways we are already at least one revolution away from the world of the New Testament and early Christianity; for that reason, if for no other, we need to consider most carefully exactly what we reject, and what we accept, and the basis on which we make either choice. Public authority, and the exercise of leadership under the sanction of that authority, has taken on significantly different forms in our democratically organised societies. At the same time I would offer the suggestion that the voice of the early Church continues to deserve our careful attention. It, after all, is much closer than we will ever be to that first-century world into which the decisive and authoritative Word of God was spoken.

Some definitions
a. ‘Leadership’ is a key issue here, and bears some reflection in its own right, but I am (of necessity) taking it to mean the ‘exercise of public authority’. I think that this is how the people of the early church would have understood it. And so in the specifically Christian context this means the public office of the ministry of word and sacrament, and also the exercise of oversight (episcopacy) in relation to that ministry. In New Testament/early Church terms, leadership is apostolic: ‘We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ (the Nicene Creed). The phrases of the Creed are cumulative, and inter-connected. These words on the nature of the church are spoken within the framework of the immediately preceding work of the Holy Spirit ‘who spoke by the prophets’. Leadership resides in a person, a person entrusted with a very specific responsibility — responsibility for the word and its ministry. This causes tensions in any community, as does the two-fold nature of the church itself. While that ‘one church’ we all confess may be hidden, it is not an imaginary, invisible or ideal state or concept: it exists, and for us must function within the world of time and space. The authority and leadership of the Head of the church is now manifest in the person(s) of those he has called to continue the service of his people (diakonia and leitourgia/latreia). That, at least, was the fairly consistent view of early Christianity.

b. The Fathers wrestled with the tension this created in their times: eg how far can or should a ‘holy, apostolic church’ expect or demand total commitment and absolute purity from her laity, as well as from her leadership? In response to the pressures of persecution, and divergent doctrine and practice (heresy), they instinctively grasped for strong, centralised leadership as the only apparent means of survival. They claimed to have inherited and preserved the teachings and practice of the apostles, who had founded catholic congregations in each place, and they focussed this tradition within the person and office of a ruling bishop. Eventually — to compress a long and complex process into a single sentence — the primacy of the bishop of Rome as successor to the chief apostle was recognised, in the West at least. This inevitably male (see ‘Specific Reasons. a.’ below] succession guaranteed for them the continuance of the gospel, the survival on earth of Christ’s body, the church, and as such they believed and confessed it to be the work of the Holy Spirit. In the councils of the church, the bishops and their theologians gave voice to their joint decisions, in the face of the problems and challenges of succeeding generations, and in the light of the gospel as they had received it. Thus they exercised leadership, and the ministry entrusted to them. Under this leadership, others also exercised their ministry — including women in the orders of the virgins, and the widows.

In this way the church in the West — the Roman, Latin church — grew and developed, even as it struggled with problems such as the rebaptism of those who had lapsed under persecution, and of those who had been baptized by heretics, the validity of sacraments administered by less-than-perfect priests, the Pelagian controversy on free-will, and so forth. The names involved are perhaps familiar: Tertullian (160-220), Cyprian (?-258), Ambrose (339-397), Jerome (342-420), Augustine (354-430) and many others. It is perhaps a caricature, but may be of significance to consider the description of the developing Roman church as tending towards legalism, concerned deeply about questions of moral righteousness and propriety, and also about structures and authority. Whether or not this was so, the question remains as to the essential or circumstantial nature of these developments in the ministry and governance of the church.

Specific reasons for the non-ordination of women
a. To make a preliminary historical judgement, it cannot be surprising that a movement which arose out of Judaism, and developed its structures in the context of Roman imperial society, maintained a solely male hierarchy and priesthood. Despite the notable exceptions (there are always exceptions!) both of these social, cultural, political groupings were and remained manifestly patriarchal in orientation and practice.

And — given the view of history with which we are working — this was not accidental. Paul’s judgement on the historical appropriateness of the incarnation can be quoted also here: ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law’ (Gal. 4:4). The left hand serves, and continues to serve, the right — indeed, that is ultimately what it is for and it even (as Luther claims in his commentary on Psalm 101,5 [Luther’s Works 18,197]) is intended to model its final revelation to some extent. Human government is one of the masks under which divine rule and purpose are revealed: the Fathers of the church believed and taught that also, even in the midst of a society that was at times cruelly opposed to them.

But, if this was so, we are also required to ask — considering carefully the political and social history of our world for the past 400 years and especially this twentieth century — when we look at the world around us today, do the radical structural changes in Western society also speak to us of God’s will and purpose for the human race, and for his church, and (if so) what exactly is the message?

b. At the same time, what we experience is always, in the church, subjected to the test of revelation itself. The early church, in the West as well as the East, focussed on two interrelated New Testament propositions, one derived and inferred from Jesus’ recorded actions in the Gospels, the other from plain statements in the writings of Paul:

The primary, determinative factor was Jesus’ choice of a male apostolate, to whom was given the command and oversight of the teaching and baptismal ministry. This choice was made alongside of the presence in Jesus’ own ministry of a number of specially gifted and involved women. This (implied) ‘command of the Lord’ leads to and is more fully articulated by Paul’s teaching. The interpretation of Jesus’ action was eventually developed to encompass the view that in the eucharist, the (male) priest offers sacrifice as Christ’s representative, in his stead.

The apostolic command(s), in 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2, and 1 Corinthians 11, are based on the orders of creation and redemption, and therefore expressed for the early church a wider view of what were the proper and natural roles of males and females, and the relationship between them. It appears that, although some early (heretical) groups claimed sanction from Galatians 3:28 for female priestly activity, none of the Western fathers specifically treated this text in the context of a debate about the church’s ministry. Augustine applies the text to the inner life of the church, and not to daily life in which distinctions remain, ‘on account of the body’ (quoted in Luther’s 1519 commentary, Luther’s Works 27,281).

c. Reading selections from their writings (albeit selectively), it is difficult to avoid the judgement that for many of the early Fathers, women were not only the later-created subordinate partners of males, but also often inferior beings — and at times worse than that. Despite many formal protestations regarding their God-given nature, the issues of sex and marriage caused a great deal of difficulty for a number of these early theologians, and generally it is women who get the blame. It is not surprising, therefore, that celibacy was actively promoted in the church, and eventually was openly acknowledged as a superior lifestyle for the Christian, both male and female. When we consider the validity of development in the early church’s teaching on the ministry, and their statements regarding the exclusion of women from it, this factor also needs to be included — even if, in the end, it is concluded that misogyny was an incidental rather than a formative factor.

Concluding questions
For this writer, there are two specific areas for continuing study which grow out of this sketchy consideration of the early Western church. The first relates to the question of the ‘orders of creation’ and how far these represent fixed structures within human society, divinely mandated, and how far historical development and social change are also part of the dynamic of this ‘order’. Under this heading needs to be further considered a view of appropriate authority and leadership in the world, and in the church, and whether properly there should be consistency and coherence between the two. Harder yet are questions which relate to the relative roles of men and women, and (again) the need for consistency between our teaching, churchly practice, and everyday lives.

The doctrine of the holy ministry is the second area. Is there anything to be gained from a consideration of the Lutheran emphasis on ‘word’ in distinction to that on ‘person’ in developing Latin theology? Which of these is to be the operative and effective heart of the Ministry, or is this a false antithesis to be corrected by a focus on the Christological union of person and word (work)? If this is so, then how far are the arguments relating to Jesus’ maleness — and his choice of male only apostles (and disciples?) — legitimate and relevant? Apostolate, priesthood, ministry: our definition and understanding of these New Testament concepts will inevitably also affect how we regard their work today, and who can properly engage in it.

Aland, Kurt
1985 A History of Chistianity, vol 1, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

Electronic Bible Society
1995 Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post Nicene Fathers (CD-Rom edition), Dallas, Texas.

Hägglund, B.
1968 History of Theology, Concordia Publishing House, St Louis.

Hauke, Manfred.
1988  Women in the Priesthood? Ignatius Press, (see especially Part 2, chapter VI), San Francisco.

Küng, Hans.
1995 Christianity, SCM Press, London.

Neve, J.L.
1946 A History of Christian Thought, vol 1 Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia.

Tappert, Th. ed
1959 The Book of Concord, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

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