Project Wittenberg

Women in the Church
Scriptural Principles and Ecclesial Practice

Part I

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

September 1985

To: Introduction - This File/ Plain Text - LCMS Documents - Project Wittenberg


Except when otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in this publication are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, l973, Used by permission.

Citations from The Lutheran Confessions are taken from The Book of Concord, translated and edited by T.G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress; Press, 1959).



The twentieth century has witnessed a veritable revolution in the roles of women and men. To some degree this revolution is attributable to rapid societal and cultural change. For example, the continued process of urbanization has shifted the population from the farms with their relatively clear and traditional roles for women and men, into the increasingly bureaucratized cities, where traditional identities have become blurred. This transition and its concomitant upheavals have had some positive results. More opportunities are becoming available to women now than ever before. Their unique contributions to society are increasingly recognized. At the same time, dramatic changes in male-female roles have also produced confusion and uncertainty.

Perhaps this confusion and uncertainty has affected the church as much as any other institution. In the wake of the feminist movement, the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, and related sociological and political developments, various Christian denominations have become involved in discussions of the role of women in the life of the church. Should churches ordain women into the pastoral office? Should church polity be rewritten so that women may serve as elders or deacons? Is there any ecclesiastical position from which women should be excluded in principle? These and other similar questions have been prominent on the theological agenda of numerous church bodies.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has not been immune from these developments. Overtures to past conventions of the Synod, inquiries received by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations, and discussions in various forums reveal the need for careful study of this matter. In response to a specific request from the Synod that it study "the role of women in the church," the CTCR has therefore prepared this document in the hope that it will assist members of the Synod in their consideration of this important topic. [1]

As it prepared this study, the Commission was acutely aware of the difficulties attending an examination of this subject in a report of limited scope. A vast body of literature on the many aspects of women's involvement in the mission of the church exists, which continues to expand in the light of contemporary discussion. Moreover, fundamental issues relating to principles of Biblical interpretation are involved in the study of this question. The extent to which the Bible reflects the culture and customs of its own time and the relationship between Scriptural principles and their contemporary application are important examples of issues about which there is disagreement. Thus, the Commission acknowledges at the outset that not all issues ultimately pertaining to this subject can be addressed.

This study is comprised of three basic parts: first, a survey of the Biblical witness to the involvement of women in Israelite culture and worship, in the ministry of Jesus, and in the life of the apostolic church; second, a distillation of the primary principles which the Scriptures present concerning women in the church; and third, a discussion of the application of these principles in concrete matters of practice today. This report is not designed to be exclusively a study of the question of ordaining women to the pastoral office. While much of the content will impinge on that issue and while such a specific study may be desirable at some point in the future, the issue of women's ordination is not the focal question here. Similarly, the Commission does not intend this document to be a reworking of its 1968 report on "Woman Suffrage in the Church." Nor is the present document a study of male-female relationships in general societal or marital contexts, however important these may be. [2] Rather, the Commission seeks in this report to outline and integrate two themes clearly present in the Word of God: 1) the positive and glad affirmation of woman as a person completely equal to man in the enjoyment of God's unmerited grace in Jesus Christ and as a member of His Body, the church; and 2) the inclusion of woman (as well as man) in a divinely mandated order which is to be reflected in the work and worship life of the church. The proper correlation of these two Biblical teachings is crucial if the church's thinking on this topic is to be determined by Holy Scripture and not by the dictates of cultural demands. (John 8:31)



The formulation and interpretation of principles regarding women in the church today must be carried out against the backdrop of the picture of women presented in the Scriptures. In both the Old and the New Testaments women are spoken of with deep respect for their personhood and for their vital work in the Kingdom of God. The commonplace contention that the Bible demeans women simply cannot be sustained if one takes seriously the Scriptures' recurrent affirmations of the service of women, who stand before God side by side with men as recipients of His gifts of grace.

A. The Old Testament

While Israelite culture was patriarchal in its structuring of family and clan, the Old Testament gives a prominent place to the character, leadership, and service of many women (indeed, two of its books-Ruth and Esther-are named for women). This truth is especially evident in the giving of the titles "prophetess" and "judge" to women and in the participation of women in individual and family worship of God.

B. The Ministry of Jesus

The New Testament manifests the same genuine appreciation and respect for women. Jesus' ready acceptance and inclusion of women in His life and work stands in sharp contrast to the disdainful and condescending attitudes toward women of so many of His contemporaries. He saw them as persons to whom and for whom He had come into the world. This can be seen in the interactions of the Lord with individual women, in the prominence of women in His parables, and in the actual participation of women in His ministry.

C. The Apostolic Church

Women were present in the upper room praying prior to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples (Acts 1:14; cf. 2:17-18). From that moment they, like men, were added to the Christian community, endured persecution and suffering, brought others to faith in Christ, and were involved in the building up of the body of Christians. The activities in which women participated varied, but they included prophesying, performing charitable services, and serving as missionary workers. [9]

Excursus on the Service of Women in the Early Chruch [16]

Within the "official" ordering of the early church's life there were two primary orders of women: widows and deaconesses. From the beginning widows were recipients of the church's charity in return for which they were "appointed for prayer" (Apostolic Tradition 11; cf. 1 Tim. 5:3 ff:). According to Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD), the widows were an ordo (Ad uxorem 1.7.4) and were assigned a place of honor within the assembled congregation parallel to that of the presbyters. In the third century, however, the widows received additional responsibilities. They exercised charity, especially to women, and they taught. Their teaching seems to have been restricted to inquiring unbelievers, for while widows could speak concerning idols and the unity of God, they could not speak about Christ and His work. Lest the pagans mock, inquirers about such matters were sent to the elders for instruction (for the widow, see Didaskalia, Apostolic Constitutions). In the Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ (c. 450) widows were a part of clerical orders and had a broad range of responsibilities, primarily to women: teaching women catechumens, rebuking those who strayed, visiting the sick, anointing women being baptized and veiling them so that their nudity would not show, seeing to it that women attended church and that they did not dress in a provocative way. Obviously, many of the duties of the widows were dictated by concerns of modesty and social acceptance.

The female diaconate was a very significant feature of the church within Greek and Syriac Christianity. The West did not have deaconesses until around the fifth century and then only reluctantly. From numerous sources (especially Didaskalia, Apostolic Constitutions) an outline of the activities of the deaconess can be discerned. They:

Indicative of the high status of deaconesses in the East was the fact that they were ordained as clergy. The Apostolic Constitutions make this especially clear (8, 19, 20), but it is also confirmed by the wording of Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). On the other hand, Western, Latin sources are punctuated by prohibitions against the ordination of the deaconess.

Yet, ordination did not give one access to all the functions of clergy. Ordination placed one into a specific ordo with its own prescribed functions. Hence, a bishop could ordain, but a presbyter could not; a presbyter could baptize, but a deacon could not. Concerning the role of women, there is a general exclusion of them from priestly duties and from the public teaching. The patristic argument against women performing sacerdotal functions, while making use of Biblical passages such as Gen. 3:16;1 Cor. 11:3 ff, 1 Tim 2:12, 14, is often based on Scriptural history and Jesus' own ministry. Against the Collyridians, Epiphanius writes: "Never from the beginning of the world has a woman served God as priest" (Panarion 79). He, then, in litany fashion, reviews all those in the Old and New Testaments who served as priests. "But never, " Epiphanius again concludes, "did a woman serve at priest." Similarly, the practice of Jesus is determinative although Mary and other women were present with Jesus, He chose to be baptized by John and he sent the twelve apostles for preaching. Such an appeal to Biblical history and the practice of Jesus was not just an appeal to tradition. It was predicated upon the belief that Jesus was the incarnated Word of God by whom all things were made and through whom all things were redeemed. The Apostolic Constitutions make the point: Jesus did what He did, and He has delivered to His church no indication of women priests because He "knows the order of creation." What He did, being the Creator of nature, He did in agreement with the creative action. Similarly, since Jesus is the incarnate Word in whom the creation is being made new, He, as Head of the church, the new people of God, typified in His ministry the new life of the church not only in its "spiritual" but also in its fleshly contours.

Corresponding to Priscilla, who taught Apollos, early Christian tradition was not devoid of women known for their missionary teaching and preaching. The Acts of Paul (c. 170) tells of Thecla, who was commissioned by Paul to "go and teach" and who is depicted as teaching both men and women. The Acts of Peter mentions Candida, who instructed her husband in the faith. The Acts of Philip reports that Jesus sent out Mariamne with Philip and Bartholomew. One tradition makes Mary and Martha, together with Lazarus, missionaries to the Province (southeastern France). St. Nina is honored as the missionary who converted Georgia. The early church, therefore, did not apply the prohibition of 1 Tim. 2:12 to the mission context. John Chrysostom expressed the consensus: "But, when the man is not a believer and the plaything of error, Paul does not exclude a woman's superiority, even when it involves teaching."

Nascent Christianity was located within a religions environment in which female deities and significant female religious leadership were not uncommon. The polytheism of Greece and Rome had both male and female deities (e.g., Juno, Minerva, Diana), and the mystery religions, oriented toward the natural cycle of birth-death-rebirth, not infrequently had primary female deities (e.g., Isis, Cybele). Not surprisingly, therefore, early Christian groups which evidenced syncretism often had women in prominent positions and assigned to them real theological significance.

In Gnostic Christianity women frequently were regarded as the bearers of secret tradition and divine revelation. Sometimes they were conceived of as the very expression of divine thought (in direct analogy to the view of Jesus as "Word of God"). Simon Magus had a female companion, Helen, whom he declared to be the "first thought of his mind." The Gnostic Apelles was accompanied by Philoumene, a prophetess whose revelations he wrote down and who performed miracles and illusions. Elsewhere, Mary Magdalene was regarded as the bearer of secret knowledge (Pistis Sophia, Gospel of Mary), as was also Salome (Egyptian Gospel).

Irenaeus (c. 180) tells of a certain Marcus whose religious rites included the consecration of cups of wine by women (Adversus omnes Haereses 1.134f). It is clear that "Marcosian gnosticism" was highly attractive to women of higher social rank. In addition, Marcosian tendencies were very resilient in Gaul (France), for at the beginning of the sixth century there were priests in Brittany who were assisted at the Eucharist by women.

Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 380) reports on two groups in which women were preeminent and possessed priestly status. The "Quintillians" honored Eve as the prototype of their female clergy, for she first ate of the tree of knowledge. They had women bishops and women presbyters, arguing that "in Christ there is neither male nor female" (Pan. 49). (Interestingly, the "Quintillians" used Gal. 3:28 in the same way that contemporary "feminists" treat that passage.) The second group, the Collyridians, apparently consisted predominantly of women who venerated the Virgin Mary as a goddess and once a year on a special day offered up to her a loaf of bread from which all members partook (Pan. 79). Firmilian of Caesarea (c. 260) tells of a prophetess in Cappadocia who celebrated the Eucharist and who baptized many.

Yet, within the church's own communal life the general prohibition of Tertullian seems to have been commonplace: "It is not permitted to a woman to speak in Church. Neither may she teach, baptize, offer, nor claim for herself any function proper to a man, least of all the sacerdotal office" (De virg. vel. 9.1). This did not mean, however, that women were simply quiescent. They were not. Especially in the areas of Christian piety and spirituality women often exercised leadership and authority. Much of the early impetus toward monasticism was supplied by women of wealth and social rank such as Melania and Paula, whose monastic foundations were every bit the equal of parallel male foundations. The Eastern tradition knows of "spiritual mothers" as well as "spiritual fathers, " and the sayings of three of them even occur in the "Sayings of the Desert Fathers." In contexts of martyrdom women by precept and example exercised real religious leadership (e.g., Blandina, Perpetua). Within Celtic Christianity dual monasteries of both monks and nuns not infrequently were governed by abbesses (e.g., Hilda of Whitby, who even participated in the "Council" of Whitby). But women were not permitted to hold the sacerdotal office in the early Christian church.


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

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