A Lesson from History
In the mid-20th century, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod had a problem that came to be called “Gospel Reductionism.” Modernism had long been waging a fearsome war against Christianity. The academic style from the Enlightenment onward had been to discard the Bible as, at best, a book of myths and legends. Science had been made the measure of all things; and because the miraculous is outside of its purview, anything which spoke of resurrections, incarnations, virgin births, and the like was assumed to be mere superstition.
Naturally, that meant Christianity was under attack from all sides. There was, at the time, a large contingent of pastors and theologians in the LCMS who did not wish to fight those battles. After all, the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ is the most important part of Christianity, right? So why bother fighting evolutionists over the six days of creation? Why bother fighting Higher Criticism over the divine inspiration of Scripture? Why bother fighting egalitarianism over America’s most hated bible verses? Why bother fighting the sexual revolution over fornication? By their reckoning, such battles were wasted effort. As long as one could still proclaim the forgiveness of sins, they thought these tertiary issues could be faithfully abandoned. That way, they could call themselves Christian theologians without being reduced to second-tier academics in the eyes of the world.
History, of course, has since revealed a folly which should have already been quite clear. When you carve away the parts of the Bible which embarrass you as obsolete, it’s a pretty short path to “Jesus died for your sins” becoming literal nonsense. After all, what does death have to with sin? Why should my actions be considered sinful? What difference does a great teacher’s death even make 2000 years later? It’s quite impossible to make sense of the Gospel without the rest of God’s inerrant Word. That’s why the “gospel” of theologically liberal “churches” like the ELCA (which eventually absorbed most of our leftover heretics) is nothing more than a baptism of fashionable politics.
We should have learned our lesson, but history amply demonstrates how quickly such lessons are forgotten. After all, we sinners will always hate parts of God’s Word, and the Devil will always tempt God’s people to start trimming at the fringes. A generation or two of laxity is all it really takes.
And that brings us to today’s controversy about women teaching in the church–the latest fringe of God’s word to be slowly trimmed away because we think it’s problematic.
Women and Teaching in the Church
At the center of this issue lie two key instructions from God on the subject:
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or was it from you that the word of god came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (1 Corinthians 14:33b-38.)
Typically, the LCMS has summarized these verses as teaching that God forbids women from being pastors. And that’s not an unfair summary. When it comes to the public teaching of the Word, the exercise of ecclesial authority, and speaking in church, pastor is the first and most obvious role we all think of. That’s certainly the core of this teaching.
However, we must not make the mistake of taking the summary and treating it as though it were the whole. The church is filled with a multitude of roles to assist the pastor in teaching God’s Word rightly and administering the sacraments properly. There are trustees who care for the building in which these things are done. There are treasurers who help manage the finances inherent in every kind of church work. There are ushers who ensure the divine service goes smoothly. There are teachers and boards who ensure that there is Christian teaching available for every age and aptitude in the congregation. There are elders who help keep track of the different congregational needs and directly minister to the pastor and assist him with his duties. There are bishops who help organize pastors and maintain order in the broader institutional church. There are people who decorate the church according to the season and secretaries who keep track of the multitude of administrative tasks. I could go on for paragraphs describing all the different tasks every moderately sized congregation needs to tend to.
Every one of those roles, however, has one thing in common: they work to make sure that each community of believers grows together through Word and Sacrament ministry. In other words, all of them are a support for that office of Pastor in one way or another. Some have more degrees of separation than others, of course–the person who organizes the summer picnic is further from the center than those who assist with Communion, for example. But all are members of the same body involved in the same work, and the heart cannot say to the big toe, “I have no need of you.”
This interconnectedness is precisely why “women cannot be pastors” can only be a summary. The Apostles learned very quickly that they needed to delegate, but it took some time for the various roles we’re familiar with to coalesce. You can see that in the multitude of different terms the New Testament uses for pastors and for their helpers.
But you’ll notice that in the verses cited above, the rule is not attached to any particular name for the pastoral office, but to specific responsibilities inherent in it: teaching, having authority, preaching to the congregation, and so forth. Accordingly, it is quite natural to understand the prohibition on women extends further than just forbidding a specific job title. The closer the role is to the pastoral center, the more it needs to be reserved for men alone. This is why congregational roles like elder and President are only given to men in most LCMS congregations–and why the role of voter should be.
This is, indeed, how most jobs are treated. If, for some reason, I am temporarily unable to fulfill any of my responsibilities at work, they need to be fulfilled by someone who is actually qualified to do those parts of my job. Like it or not, being a man is one of the qualifications for teaching or exercising authority over men in Christ’s church. Inasmuch as any role involves assisting with those pastoral duties, it likewise must be carried out by a man–just as it must be carried out by someone of good character, husband of only one wife, not a drunkard, etc.
The Current Controversy
This straightforward wisdom rooted in Scripture is precisely where Satan’s scissors are busily snipping away, and a recent controversy in the LCMS over a book is a good illustration of this.
The reflexively deceitful will tell you that people are upset because “a woman wrote a book.” This is akin to saying that Noah went for a boat ride or that an unborn child is just a clump of cells. It deliberately leaves out the most pertinent details, and is done in order to obscure the issue rather than clarify it.
Here are some more relevant facts: Concordia Publishing House is the publishing arm of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. They primarily publish doctrinally-reviewed books and teaching materials for our church body–pastors, theologians, and laity alike. In this case, they published a theology book by a woman intended to teach the men and women of the LCMS. (And lest anybody equivocate about whether it’s “really” teaching, it comes complete with “study questions” at the end of each chapter. Don’t be an idiot.) This is a very plain example of our church assigning a woman to teach men in the church–one of the specific duties which God forbade women.
And that is the true root of the controversy: a course of action taken by members and institutions of our church body which violates a reasonable, straightforward, and natural reading of the Biblical text. What’s more, it’s a text that is already under assault from without by our feminist culture. Christians who are aware of this assault are naturally going to object when it comes from within. They do so faithfully and in good conscience.
An Ungodly Defense
I wish the same could be said of most of those defending this, but here are the kinds of objections I’m seeing the most:
First up is the classic “You’re misogynists!” Whether through malice or simple Biblical ignorance, the most common complaint is that the objectors are terrible misogynists, sexists, and incels who, in the manner of mustache-twirling villains, are just out to get women. One could complain about their ad hominem and psychologizing, but neither is really the biggest issue with this complaint. The biggest issue is that misogyny is a fake sin. That term is meaningless outside of the modern egalitarian context. And in the Biblical context, God straightforwardly undermines that entire enterprise and dethrones its false god of equality.
What these proponents are doing is uniting their voices with that of the world to condemn whatever dares set itself against their common idol. The fact that they and Holy Scripture have frequently drawn that same label for acknowledging that anything is forbidden to women does not concern them. They are quite content not only to wield the Enemy’s weapons against Christians, but also to sharpen those weapons for future use against themselves. There comes a time when one must objectively consider which side of the Great Conflict they are truly fighting for, and recognize, like Luther did with Zwingli, that we are not of the same Spirit.
Next is the contention that CPH is a publishing house, not the church. Like the aforementioned “just writing a book” sophistry, this is another fine example of legalistic excuse-making. Its closest kin is a little brother holding his finger a millimeter away from his sibling and declaring, “I’m not touching you!” But sadly, it is even more inadequate than that. After all, the LCMS is a major church body. CPH describes itself and is described by us as the publishing arm of that church body. We cannot simply pretend that the arm is amputated from the body when it suits us but attached when it’s trying to peddle doctrinally trustworthy wares. One might as well declare “It was not I that was touching you, but merely this arm which I’m only subtly attached to.” In terms of this kind of action, there is no meaningful distinction.
And, of course, you have folks arguing that God’s command doesn’t matter because the author is a very very good teacher. But notice how we don’t do this with any of the other Biblical requirements. We do not permit our pastor to have four wives just because he’s not even a little bit quarrelsome. Neither do we say that it’s no big deal if a man is a drunkard because he’s extremely hospitable (you should see his keggers!) These are not human requirements established by HR that we can adjust on-the-fly, as when a candidate has no experience in SQL, but his expertise in Angular makes up for it. These are handed down by God. We may not understand why being a man is a requirement. We may not like that it is. But our own failures to grasp God’s revealed will do not excuse us from treating it as important.
But all of these are only cheap attempts to get the issue quickly dismissed on a technicality. The real problem is when weak pastors actually begin to circumscribe the pastoral office–deliberately making it tiny so as not to restrict any feminine ambition. While they, unlike the excuse-makers, are at least looking to Scripture, their stubborn misuse of it ends up far more damaging. Just like the Gospel reductionists of the last century, they do not have the stomach for individual battles over women lectors, teachers, writers, children’s sermon preachers, and so forth. They therefore abandon the battleground by repeatedly retreating to whichever part of the pastoral office isn’t currently under attack in the LCMS.
Some will try to restrict the scope of these commands to the divine service itself. They restrict “in all the churches” from 1 Corinthians to an hour on Sunday morning, and surreptitiously add it to 1 Timothy as well. Of course, if the scope were truly as hermetically sealed to Sunday morning as they contend, the latter passage would become truly strange. After all, God gives women an alternative to teaching and having authority: childbearing. Is God therefore saying that births should take place during the divine service?
Others, of course, realize that even that stand isn’t narrow enough to avoid a battle, for women lectors who teach God’s authoritative Word to the congregation during the divine service are a relatively common sight in the LCMS. (That is how women’s ordination began among Anglicans a century ago, by the way.) So the pastoral office needs to be made even more cartoonishly small. I saw one LCMS pastor casually arguing that unless a woman is specifically delivering a sermon during the divine service on Sunday morning, she is not usurping the office of pastor. Although, with women delivering children’s sermons is many places, even that may not be sufficiently narrow to avoid controversy. So we’d better just call it a children’s “message” instead.
It becomes a truly silly position in the end. Most obviously, we reduce our God-given shepherds to mere figureheads sporting an empty title disconnected from anything tangible. But the overt foolishness built up by this kind of retreat will, itself, inevitably lead to discarding God’s requirement altogether, as the ELCA has done long ago. After all, if a woman can do whatever she wants so long as she doesn’t claim the title of pastor or call her sermon a sermon, it’s only a decade or so until that obvious legal fiction is discarded as well and women’s ordination becomes an explicit practice.
Using the Women of the Bible Against the Bible
Nevertheless, one does not teleport directly to that extreme, but takes a path well travelled. It proceeds in increments achieved by wielding Scripture against itself under the guise of using Scripture to interpret Scripture. After all, don’t we read stories about Deborah, Miriam, or Mary addressing the Church in song? Wasn’t Priscilla a strong independent woman in control of her own life who set that teacher Apollos straight about his theology? Doesn’t Junia being well-known among the apostles testify to her teaching ministry? Surely these examples must demonstrate that 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy can’t mean what they sound like!
Using Scripture to interpret Scripture properly is indeed an essential element to reading comprehension. However, there are appropriate priorities when doing this. For example, one must interpret less clear passages in light of the more clear passages. When, say, foolish Christians try to decide the date for Christ’s return they do the opposite: They interpret Jesus’ clear statement that no one knows the day or the hour in light of difficult passages in Revelation which they think they’ve “decoded.”
Likewise, one must understand descriptive passages in light of clear prescriptive passages. That’s why Christians don’t use Acts 4:32-5:11 to impose Christian socialism, but rather interpret that event in light of prescriptive passages about generosity. That’s why we don’t use Jacob or David to argue that polygamy is A-OK in all times and places. But that is also why one shouldn’t use descriptive passages about women to determine what prescriptive passages like 1 Timothy 2 are “allowed” to tell us. So let’s look at a few of these examples and see whether it’s at all difficult to interpret any of them in light of the prescriptive passages.
Junia is pretty easy. All the Bible says is this: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” This says nothing about teaching or having authority–only that she is imprisoned like Paul and known to the apostles. The same could be said of Phoebe, whom Paul called “a servant [deaconess] of the church at Cenchreae” and “a patron of many and myself as well.”
This is only an issue when one is so mentally broken by the Spirit of the Age that he cannot conceive of anyone being well-known unless they’re teaching and exercising authority over men. Do you really think there’s nothing else that a woman could do to serve? Is there nothing else a Christian could be imprisoned for or that would garner apostolic attention? This is a failure of the impoverished egalitarian imagination, not a barrier to a straightforward understanding of the prescriptive verses.
Then what about Mary? Do we need to excise the Magnificat from liturgy and Scripture alike because she’s a woman teaching theology? One need only read the Gospel of Luke to refute this. Mary spoke the Magnificat to Elizabeth concerning the ultimate work of motherhood that God had called her to. It is Luke who then gave this treasure to the Church through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We, then, faithfully repeat these blessed words from God as we worship Him. It shouldn’t need to be said that a man teaching about a woman–the mother of God–is not a woman teaching. Nevertheless, even the obvious points must be spoon-fed to those determined to distrust God’s commands.
How about the women who first proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection? Weren’t they preaching every time they gave their testimony of what they witnessed that first Easter? Of course they bore witness to the miracle they had seen. How could they not? I’m sure they eagerly spoke to many early Christians about what it was like to see their risen Lord. But once again, it is the apostles who delivered their testimony as teachings of the Church through their preaching and through Holy Scripture. Once again, God called men to proclaim what these women had seen and heard to the churches.
One must truly close his eyes to be unable to see the difference. This deliberate confusion is as silly as going to a courtroom and confusing a witness with the judge. One is presiding. One is giving testimony under that judge’s purview–with all manner of process and ceremony to separate the two in the eyes of the jury. Courts do not blur those lines. Neither should the Church.
What then of prophetesses like Anna and Deborah? Didn’t they proclaim the very word of God for the edification of his people? In a sense, yes, but people really need to think this one through before giving those examples. Does anyone seriously contend that the woman in question is a prophetess? Because that is a whole different can of worms.
Even setting aside God’s penalties for falsely claiming to be a prophet, prophet and pastor are not the same office. Pastor is a mediated call–meaning he is called to his office by men acting in the stead of Christ. That’s why there are lists of qualifications for pastors. There is no such list for prophets. To be sure, prophets don’t have to be men. But then, they don’t have to be believers either, seeing as how Saul became a prophet while trying to murder David. For that matter, prophets don’t even need to be human. After all, God opened the mouth of Balaam’s donkey to speak and Christ warned the Jews that if his followers were silent the very stones would cry out. God had the prophets do some crazy things, and the way He worked through them is often mind-boggling. But as each case is God’s direct action, it has absolutely no bearing on the matter of women being appointed by men to teach in the church.
Then what about Priscilla? Let’s consider the text. Acts 18 describes the eloquent and competent Apollos teaching in the Synagogues, but Priscilla explained things to him even more accurately. Clearly this is a woman teaching a learned man in the church, right?
Well, for one thing, the text is about Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, but he always seems to get left out even though Scripture attributes the teaching to “them” rather than “her.” Second, it explicitly says that they took Apollos aside to explain these things. So you have a Christian couple conversing privately and informally about Christ as they bring a man up to speed on Christian Baptism. You can tell a lot about this argument by the details that are usually left out: private, informal, working in conjunction with and under the authority of her husband. These details mark a profound difference from the situation at hand: publishing and marketing an instructional text for a church body.
This narrative about Priscilla and Aquila does not undo the prescriptive texts that forbid women from teaching and having authority over men in the church. Neither does it bind the prescriptive texts to the divine service itself or possession of a particular title. All it does is suggest a difference between the overt work of the church and casual correspondence among believers–something that is already an organic part of literally any human community and should therefore appear exceptional to precisely no one.
Disciplining our Sinful Nature
There is, however, a relevant point we can learn from this text, and it has to do with legalism. One might ask: “Where exactly is the line between having an informal but informative discussion about theology and this act of teaching which God forbids?” But if it’s a clear and well-defined line you’re looking for, you’re out of luck because that’s not how this works.
The situation is analogous to asking “what’s the line between healthy, God-given sexual desire and lust?” We know from Scripture that both of these things exist and that there is absolutely a difference between the two. We can also easily think of clear examples on either side (e.g. letting your wife’s breasts satisfy you as Proverbs instructs vs leering at pornography.) God even freely gives us a fair amount of Biblical wisdom to discern between the two in the many non-extreme parts of our lives. But discernment is not a flowchart that defines a clear line and therefore justifies us.
The reality is that we can’t always tell. What we can do, however, is recognize what our sexual desire is for and work to discipline it so that it leads us into godly marriage rather than fornication. And that discipline does take work because our nature is fallen–our desire will always be sinful to some extent. That’s why we must also depend on grace from beginning to end.
The same is true with women talking about theology. We know there are innocent and evil ends of the spectrum. We can easily think of clear examples. We have Biblical wisdom to help us discern in genuine middle cases. But there is no flowchart by which we can justify ourselves because our desires themselves are disordered. Eve’s curse–to want to control her husband–is part of fallen nature. Like errant sexual desire, a women’s desire to take authority over men must be mortified through discipline.
One form of that discipline is that women need to devote themselves to what God has explicitly called them to do. As they serve their families and the Church in many and various ways, they will naturally end up having many innocent theological conversations. But insofar as they stick to their vocations, those conversations will not evolve into forbidden teaching.
The other form of that discipline is listening to faithful Christians point out when you’ve gone too far. In a healthy community, this will happen naturally when a situation first starts looking sketchy. People will speak up about propriety well before things go too far. Those willing to listen will quickly get back on track, and those persist in refusing to listen will ultimately leave that community one way or another.
One of the most obvious indications that CPH’s decision to publish is squarely in the sinful end of this spectrum is that the arguments defending it vehemently reject both those forms of discipline as quaint or foolish. Instead of recognizing the ambiguity in the middle and working to keep their distance from sin, they strive to get as close as possible to a line they cannot clearly see and inevitably careen over it.
When proponents mockingly straw-man the opposition with lines like “they say women aren’t allowed to do anything but have babies!” they are undermining women’s primary God-given vocation with their derision. Many of them genuinely betray an inability to think of women’s Biblical roles as godly or valuable. Like the medieval monastics, they possess the attitude that official church work is the only truly God-pleasing work and that denying women such an opportunity is wicked and sinful.
They reject the other form of discipline even more firmly. They relentlessly attack those of us who dare suggest that a woman has gone too far. They attempt to shame and cancel anyone who suggests a situation is sketchy or speaks of propriety. They even try to reduce the pastoral office to practically nothing in order to take away examples that would have been quite clear to every Christian who lived outside of our modern egalitarian culture.
You may have noticed that my entire argument concerns the controversy rather than the author or her book. This is deliberate; I know neither the author nor her book apart from the controversy, so I have nothing to say there. I do not object to what she wrote or to the fact that a woman wrote a book, but rather that she and CPH are working together to set her up as a teacher in the church. That is the problem. And no amount of legalistic hedging or minimization of the pastoral office resolves that problem.
This controversy has exposed the sad fact that the LCMS is not a particularly healthy community at present. We pat ourselves on the back for our devotion to worldly values like representation, inclusion, and the shattering of glass ceilings. In contrast, we can only muster a shrug at the Word of God when it speaks against those values. What’s more, there are many wolves among us who attack those who faithfully resist the world on the sure ground of Holy Scripture. They undermine sound doctrine and faithful men alike.
Just like last century’s gospel reductionism, the root of this controversy lies in a refusal by Christians to fight the good fight of the faith. Back then, they were afraid of standing up to academics. Now we’re even afraid of standing up to women. But we do not get to choose how Satan attacks the Bride of Christ; ours is only to respond as God has instructed us.
May God once again have mercy on this Synod and raise up Godly men of courage and character who will testify to God’s Word over and against this world and its prince.