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Ordination of women in the LCA - Yes or No?

Paul, the Mission to Jews, and Women in the Churches
Victor C. Pfitzner, Luther Seminary

Consensus and dissent: an historical preface

The ‘Theses on the Office of the Ministry’, adopted in 1950 by the Joint Intersynodical Committees of the two Lutheran churches prior to union (1966), reflected a solid consensus. A woman could not be called into the office of the public ministry (Theses of Agreement VII, 11; DSTO 1989: A13). Scriptural support for this position was supplied by simple reference to 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14. Exegetical notes and theological argumentation were not necessary; there was no controversy on the matter.

This consensus was not broken by the debate —still prior to union — over the right of women to vote at congregational meetings (1966; see DSTO 1989: F1). Nor was the situation much altered twenty years ago in 1978 when the General Convention at Parramatta ruled that ‘the right to act as delegates at conventions of the Church may be granted to men and women alike’ (The Role of Women in the Church; DSTO 1989: F2-3, 3). Considerable more theological argumentation was provided than in previous statements — behind the relative brevity and even-handed tone of the 1978 statement lay a great deal of battle heat and dust! But the fundamental principle of subordination and reserve for women was not called into question. Consequently, official statements of the L.C.A. after 1978 centred only on the application of the principle of male authority and the subordination of women. Women could serve on boards and committees of the church (1984; DSTO 1989: F3), and as elders in the congregation (1989; DSTO 1997:, D1), but were debarred from serving as lay readers (1993; DSTO 1997: F1).

Basic assumptions on which earlier statements were based have been increasingly challenged and more thoroughly debated since the 1986 decision of the Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations to initiate a thorough study of the question whether women could be ordained. We have reached the point where original consensus has been replaced by dissent on a variety of exegetical and theological questions.

The purpose of these historical notes is to highlight two observations:

  • A genuine theological consensus lay behind the Church’s rejection of the ordination of women, but it was one that was largely built on assumptions as to how the key texts and other biblical evidence were to be read.
  • A great amount of detailed exegetical work has been devoted to disclosing as clearly as possible the original meaning of texts. The assumption seems to have been that explication and application are one and the same process. There has been relatively little reflection on the problems caused by an uncritical transposing of historical texts into a modern setting. Hermeneutical questions relating to the present application of texts have been addressed more fully in recent discussions of the church’s Commission on Theology and Inter-church Relations.

Adequate explanations
The purpose of this contribution is attempt a reasonable reconstruction — absolute proof is too much to hope for — of the historical circumstances which gave 1 Corinthians 14:33a-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11,12 specific meaning, and then ask how the texts speak to our historical circumstance. The argument for the ordination of women – both here and overseas — has suffered from at least two problems. The first is this: it is a simple fact that there are no texts which say that women may be, let alone should be, admitted to the public ministry. It will not do to reply that no New Testament texts expressly say that men must ordained, since the contra argument does at least have two texts which call for women to be silent in public worship. But a simplistic citing of Bible passages on the assumption that their meaning is clear will not suffice. Both sides in the debate must argue inferentially. Here, as always in doing theology, it is a matter of combining evidence from the New Testament into a coherent argument. There is no biblical command to baptise children, but we conclude that this is God’s will from a number of clear scriptural truths, especially those that teach the universality of sin and the universality of grace. While the argument for the admission of women into the public office can produce no ‘proof text’, it can develop a coherent argument by inference, one that is just as compelling as the argument for the baptism of children.

The second problem of the pro argument is how to deal with the clear import of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, viz. that women are to act in a submissive and reserved manner in public worship. The two main texts have the following in common: women/wives are to remain silent; they are to show submission; they are to be learners or questioners rather than leaders and teachers. One can argue about the integrity of the textual tradition and about semantics, but the general import of the texts is clear.

Various reasons have been offered to explain why we should not apply these texts in a literal way today. The proposition that Paul was a misogynist is hardly worth considering, and not only because it lacks proof. It also places Paul’s apostolic authority in question.

Another solution, one we might call the cultural argument, comes in various forms. Its general thrust is that the early Christian movement arose in a male-dominated, patriarchal society. Strictures that applied to the conduct of women in society were simply taken over by the early church. Since our cultural and societal values place women on an equal footing with men (in theory if not in practice), the New Testament regulations about women speaking in public can no longer apply.

There are several defects in this argument. In the first place the concept of ‘culture’ is too general. Which culture are we talking about: Greco-Roman or Jewish? Do we mean Palestinian-Jewish or Diaspora-Jewish? In the Greco-Roman world culture was not a consistently uniform reality. There was a difference between the status accorded to women in the West and East of the Roman Empire — but even that is a generalisation! Nor can we make easy distinctions between Jewish faith and the cultural expression of that faith. The cultural argument by itself must logically finish with the inference, if not explicit claim, that it is our improved cultural values (the equality of women in our western societies) that determine how we read the old. Such a view is problematic.

It is hardly deniable that we read ancient texts through cultural glasses, but our situation does not determine the original meaning of texts two thousand years ago. A far more differentiated reading of the key texts is required. It is vital that we give proper attention to their historical setting and specific purpose. The thesis of this presentation is that the insistence on women keeping their reserve in public worship was part of Paul’s mission policy that in no way invalidated or militated against his gospel principle of the equality of all baptised. To insist that the policy must remain in place in the twentieth century, even though the original mission situation no longer obtains, is to compromise the gospel principle. Here we can indicate the argument in no more than broad strokes.

Pauline principle
By Paul’s gospel principle we mean that aspect of Paul’s missionary proclamation which says that, on the basis of baptismal incorporation into Christ, the old disunity between people based on ethnicity, gender, and social status no longer applies in the church. In the version of the baptismal formula that Paul cites in Gal. 3:28, the last phrase clearly refers to Genesis 1:27. ‘There is no longer male and female‘ recalls the creation of ‘male and female’ (the phrase is missing in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:11; see Reumann: 109). Something that belongs to the old created order is changed in the new.

It would be totally preposterous to read Paul as saying that the gospel immediately and automatically transforms the whole of society. It did not do so then, and does not do so now. Baptised Christians did not cease to be Jews or Gentiles, men and women, free people or slaves. Paul’s immediate and main point is that people, no matter what their background and social position, are ‘all one in Christ’. The text proclaims the unity of all in Christ. Does it do more than that?

The implications to be drawn from Gal 3:28 have been much debated, especially in connection with the debate over the ordination of women. Some insist that Galatians l 3:28 states a faith reality not to be translated into social reality. More specifically, it is viewed as referring to an eschatological truth that will be realised only at the consummation.

When Paul looks at human relations within the family of the baptised he does not rest content with making faith statements about eschatological realities. He orders relationships in the light of the gospel, and in such a way as to show that equality of people in Christ is part of their unity in Christ. A few examples will suffice to illustrate the point:

  • Onesimus may not have ceased to be a slave, but Paul obviously 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 as equal in honour and standing (see Rom 15:7-9; Eph 2:11-22).
  • Husbands and wives remain men and women with their own sexuality, but marital relationships are now determined by the love, respect, and mutual submission that they share as partners in the gospel (see Eph 5:21-33).

That the gospel principle has practical ramifications for the way in which men and women relate to each other is clear from two other texts. In sexual relations between Christian partners, in the intimate expression of the union of a man and woman, there is no lording of one party over the other; neither party rules his or her own body (1 Cor 7:4). It is difficult not to read Paul’s words on the background of Gen 3:16b: ‘Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’.

Paul’s side comment in 1 Cor 11:11,12 — that the Christian husband and wife are not independent of each other, but remain interdependent — is highly significant precisely because it occurs within an argument for the clear distinction between men and women, husbands and wives. Even the creation argument cannot be used to argue for the priority of the one gender over the other, ‘for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman’.

It is just this last passage which raises the problem. How is it that Paul can enunciate what we have called the gospel principle, and in the same breath call for behaviour of women in public which suggests that they are ‘under’ men in the sense that they are to reflect honour on their husbands? Some of the problems of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 can be solved by reading the text on the background of ancient concepts of shame and honour (see Malina: 25-48). But the most important question remains, How does principle relate to policy, that is, to the practical demands of the Pauline mission?

Pauline policy and practice
Though it proclaimed a radical gospel the early Christian movement was conservative in its practice as it moved from the Palestinian mother-soil into the Diaspora of the Gentile world. It did not seek to change social structures. This was due not only the precarious social position of the church and the conviction that the return of the Lord was imminent — see how these two considerations govern Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7 that people ‘remain’ where they are in society. Those considerations were important, but there was another that meant, in particular, that the Pauline congregations could not radically change the position and function of women. We are talking about the Apostle Paul’s missionary strategy and the Jewish beginnings of the church.

This is not the place to attempt anything like a summary of Paul’s missionary policy and practice. The apostle was never burdened with the modern necessity of perpetually drawing up mission statements and strategies! His task came with his call; everything was now placed in the service of fulfilling that call. There could be no compromise over the gospel, but Paul seems to have been amazingly elastic when it came to how the gospel reached people. Even if people preached Christ out of false motives, including rivalry with Paul, he could still be happy. ‘What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice’ (Phil 1:18; NRSV). He could not only accept the work of others badly disposed towards him; he could also adapt himself to those who needed to hear the gospel, becoming a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles (1 Cor 9:19-23). He could do this not because flexibility was itself a virtue, but because of his mission. ‘I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel. . .’   (1 Corinthians 9:22,23).

It is Paul’s concern for the expediencies of mission that help to explain why he does not insist on a radical application of the gospel principle. At this point we need to be a bit more specific about the focus of the Pauline mission. Though he was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, Paul never ceased to be also an apostle to the children of Israel (see Acts 9:15). That is certainly how Luke saw the Pauline mission: from beginning to end he made the Jewish synagogue and community his starting point (compare Acts 13:6 with 28:17).

Did Paul himself view his mission in the same way? Galatians 2:7,8 should not be pressed to mean that Peter could go only to Jews and Paul only to Gentiles. Paul’s passionate concern for his fellow Jews, a concern reflected in Romans 9-11, meant that the gospel first had to be brought to them. It is not going too far to say that the Jewish synagogue was the seedbed of the church in the Greco-Roman world. The first Pauline converts were, in the main, either Jews or ‘God-fearers’ from the synagogue. And the focus of the mission of these churches did not look away from the local Jewish communities once the church was founded.

The Jewish synagogues at Corinth and Ephesus figure prominently in the Lukan history of the Christian communities in those two cities (for Corinth see Acts 18:8,17; for Ephesus see 18:26 and 19:8). Despite this, Corinth has traditionally been seen as the prime example of a Gentile Christian community with little in the Corinthian correspondence to suggest a strong Jewish presence. Ephesus has been commonly regarded as the prime example of the success of the actual Pauline mission in confronting Greco-Roman paganism—in this case, the cult of the Ephesian Artemis.

Both views can be challenged. It is wrong to suppose that the errors addressed in the Corinthian correspondence must have originated only in pagan Hellenism, that they could not also have appealed to — even originated with — hellenistic Jewish converts. Jewish Christians were present at Corinth, and with such non-Jewish names as Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor 1:14), Sosthenes (Acts 18:17; 1 Cor 1:1), Jason and Sosipater (Rom 16:21; cf Acts 17:5-9), Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2,18,26; 1 Cor 16:19; these two also have connections with Ephesus). This should alert us to the possibility that other Corinthian Christians mentioned in Acts 18, 1 Corinthians 1 and 16, as well as Romans 16 (see Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, 1982, 94,95) could have been Jews as well.

In the case of Ephesus, Rick Strelan (1996) has made a convincing case that Ephesus was not a success story for Paul’s Gentile mission, as often maintained. The Artemis cult continued to flourish despite the small Jewish Christian community at Ephesus that survived as a Johannine rather than Pauline community.

We have looked at the origin of these two churches since they are the faith communities addressed in the key texts. Paul’s appeal for consistency of practice in all the churches (1 Cor 14:33b) was surely motivated by his concern for the preservation of unity in the service of the church’s mission. Common practice suggests a common situation: the need to ensure that practice did not shock Jews or provide fuel for the customary Roman distrust of new and foreign cults (see Keener: 140-142). The texts themselves should be able to tell us whether Paul’s ultimate concern was the preservation of a creational or liturgical order, or whether his concern was simply good order so as to avoid setting up skandala for both Jewish converts and potential Jewish and non-Jewish converts.

The specific focus of the key texts
My argument is that the teaching of Paul on the subordination and silence of women in worship not only makes sense in a Jewish Christian setting; there are features in the texts which are best explained on that presupposition. But first a caveat is in place. I am not suggesting that all that Paul says on the behaviour of women in 1 Corinthians 11, 14 and 1 Timothy 2 is motivated by concern to keep peace and order in Jewish-Christian congregations. Nor is he concerned only with avoiding the giving of offense to Jews who are yet to be won for the gospel. The vision of Paul goes beyond Jews.

  • The reference to what is ‘proper’ or ‘degrading’ in 1 Corinthians 11:13,14 embraces wider societal values in Corinth than merely Jewish sensibilities.
  • The instruction in 1 Timothy 2:9-15 is framed by an appeal to the concept of modesty. Modesty, like sensible and seemly behaviour (v 9), was valued in women by hellenistic society generally, not merely by Jews.

The two key texts are not identical in form and content. First Corinthians 14:33b-38 cites the regulation, undergirds it with citations of authority, and anticipates the objections of charismatics who might want to dispute the apostle’s ruling. The rationale for the ruling is given in v 35b: ‘For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church’. First Timothy 2:11,12 states the rule for the silence of women in apodictic manner. But here a more elaborate rationale for the practice is provided (vv 13,14).

Despite differences, there are three points that the two texts have in common. Women/wives are to remain silent; they are to show submissive behaviour (neither text actually speaks of them submitting themselves to men/husbands); they are to be questioners and learners. The best way of understanding these three points and the one lesson they develop is to recall synagogue practice. After the reading of Torah and Hafterah, these lections from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets could be discussed, but only by male members. Participation of a woman in the discussion was impossible as was any woman reading the sacred text in the synagogue or studying it in private at the feet of a rabbi. Thus the women/wives are to ‘ask their husbands at home’ if they want explanations (1 Cor 14:35); they are to learn rather than teach (1 Tim 2:11,12). It is not difficult to understand how Jews or Jewish converts or would have found any other behaviour anything but ‘shameful’ (1 Cor 14:35).

It may be that the two texts have another feature in common. The appeal to ‘the law’ in 1 Corinthians 14:34 without further specification or quotation, has continually puzzled commentators. Is he referring to the Old Testament as a whole, to the Mosaic law, to one passage like Genesis 3:16, or to rabbinic law? That Paul is even referring to Jewish custom should not be too quickly dismissed. Billerbeck (468) points out that custom could count as Torah. It is reasonable to assume that Paul could refer to the ‘the law’ without further specification because Jewish Christian would know what he meant.

The rationale for the silence of women in 1 Timothy 2:13,14 also causes problems with its reference to the Torah, the Genesis account. The argument for authority on the basis of temporal priority is a common Jewish argument, employed also in the New Testament (see, for example, John 1:15,30; 8:58; Gal 3:17; Heb 7:4-10). It is an argument that would make little sense to the non-Jewish mind. Likewise, the statement that Adam was not deceived cannot be taken purely at face value. It does make sense in the light of Jewish discussion over Eve’s guilt (see Keener: 114,115). A certain reading of the Genesis story is assumed, and that reading most reasonably belongs to the readers’ Jewish past. Specific injunction in a specific circumstance explains the use of a specific way of arguing.

Meeting some objections
It might be objected that there is no other evidence for what we have proposed, namely, that practical conclusions were not drawn from a principal because of the Jewish origins and continuing mission of the early church to Jews. There are, in fact, two examples that show how mission expediency rather than insistence on principle could determine missionary practice—without leading to the surrender of the principle itself.

  • The Pauline principle was that circumcision counted for nothing in the new covenant of grace (Galatians 6:15; 1 Corinthians 7:19), yet the apostle circumcised young Timothy so as not to give unnecessary offense to Jews in a potentially ripe mission field.
  • The principle enunciated by the Apostolic Council was that Gentile Christians were to be free of the law as a condition for entry into God’s people (see Acts 15:7-11,19). Yet the minimum requirements of Gentile converts laid down by the Council did include one or two (depending on the meaning of ‘blood’) prohibitions which had Jews in mind. The avoidance of offense to potential Jewish converts was clearly a top priority (see Acts 15:19-21 with its reference to those who in every city listen to Moses being read in the synagogue). This decree, issued with the authority of the Holy Spirit as well as of the apostles, and outlined three times (see also 15:29; 21:25), was never repealed. The need for it simply lapsed.

 Secondly, it might be objected that the above argument still sees culture as determinative for the behaviour of women in church. To this it must be asserted that the principle is Pauline, not drawn from the values of our present western society. Changes to the status of women in our society mean that the policy is no longer required (it would still most certainly be required in Islamic countries). For many — especially women — the insistence on the continuation of the practice is a skandalon, a cause of offense.

Finally, it is repeatedly pointed out that equality does not necessarily mean exercising the same functions. In any case, the equality of Christians applies to their life together in the general priesthood, not to the public office. Here again, a basic distinction must be made. True, equality does not mean common functions; but there is no equality without the possibility of holding common functions. Pastors come from nowhere else but from the general priesthood, just as politicians, including premiers and prime ministers, come from the citizenry. Citizens are not equal because they are all political leaders, but because they all can become such. To say that men and women are equal in the Body of Christ is not to say that all must have the same function. It is to assert that some can have the same function because what is determinative in assigning the function is only the call of the Lord and gifting for that function, not gender.

Billbeck, Paul
1926 Die Briefe des Neuen Testaments und die Offenbarung Johannes erlaeutert aus Talmud und Midrash, C.H. Beck, Munich.

Keener, Craig S.
1992 Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul, Hendrickson, Peabody MA.

Lutheran Church of Australia
1989 Doctrinal Statements and Theological Opinions of the Lutheran Church of Australia, vol 1, rev ed, Adelaide.

1997 Doctrinal Statements and Theological Opinions of the Lutheran Church of Australia, vol 2, Adelaide.

Malina, Bruce J.
1981 The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, John Knox Press, Atlanta.

Reumann, John H.P.
1987 Ministries Examined: Laity, Clergy, Women and Bishops in a Time of Change. Augsburg, Minneapolis.

Strelan Rick
1996 Paul, Artemis, and the Jews In Ephesus, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York.

Theissen, Gerd
1982 The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

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